According to the Book of the Stranger, the religious tome of the seven-pointed star from which this episode of Game of Thrones takes its name, death makes strangers of us all. Some, like the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), take that to mean that there’s no point in the luxuries of life, and that we must instead do our best to simply live in peace. Others, like the masters of Slaver’s Bay, take the other extreme, finding meaning only by intensifying the anonymity of their slaves and thereby elevating themselves.
At the start of “Book of the Stranger,” Jon Snow (Kit Harington) wishes to walk somewhere between the two, his thoughts tending toward the south, where he can, perhaps “get warm.” His plans are derailed, however, by the arrival of his sister, Sansa (Sophie Turner), who seeks Jon’s aid in overthrowing Ramsay (Iwan Rheon), a task he grimly commits to after learning that his young brother, Rickon, is held captive in Winterfell’s dungeons. As it turns out, then, death—specifically Jon’s—can also provide common cause, and the episode does well to finally start uniting the season’s threads, often through blood.
The first and most immediate bit of payoff is in the actual reunion between Jon, who hasn’t seen a member of his family in years, and Sansa. The two silently observe one another from afar, perhaps astonished at how they’ve changed, or thrilled to realize that in family they can perhaps still see themselves as the innocent, spoiled, or brooding children they once were. But as they walk closer to each other, they suddenly break into a run, catching one another in a unifying hug. There are still dark shadows on the periphery, as Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) stares down Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten), both of whom she blames for the magical assassination of her original lord, Renly, but she seems content for now to gloat in her execution of Stannis. Finally putting all these characters together also serves to provide the series with a means for levity in the ways characters unexpectedly connect (watch how Kristofer Hivju’s Tormund appreciatively ogles Brienne as they break bread together).
Also satisfying is the escalation of politics back at King’s Landing. Whereas the last several episodes have made a point of showing how Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have been shut out of the Small Council by Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), “Book of the Stranger” gives them common cause to unite—so as to prevent Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), the current queen, from being subjected to the same walk of shame Cersei suffered. The reversal of fortunes for the Lannisters and Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman), who’s seen his powers as king eroded by the religious fervor of the spartan Sparrows, was a humbling necessity, but it’s high time these characters were actually given the opportunity to fight back.
The contrast between the unrest in King’s Landing and that of Mereen is also instructive, for while the action in the former is driven by the delightfully greedy motivations of its characters, the story of Mereen’s struggles with slavery is presented in a far more didactic fashion. To some extent, this lies at the feet of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who’s a talker, not a fighter, and who deals in appeasement, looking to convince the slavers to reform out of long-term financial advancement. Missandrei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) disagree with Tyrion’s methods, but they do so politely, reminding him both that his short stint as a slave in no way helps him to understand how bad slavery actually is and emphasizing how the masters, who’ve made a living out of using others, aren’t to be trusted. These are valid points to be made, and they’re well argued from both an emotional and intellectual place, but they’re also heavy-handed.
Scenes like those are necessary, perhaps, but they pale in comparison to the satisfying comeuppance and violence Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) unleashes in Vaes Dothrak. After Daario (Michiel Huisman) and Jorah (Iain Glen) somewhat improbably sneak their way into the holy city and find Daenerys outside the temple of the Dosh Kaleen, Daenerys has the opportunity to simply run away, but as Jon Snow does when confronted with Ramsay’s evil, she chooses to act decisively. In a scene that intentionally mirrors the first season’s finale, Daenerys burns the temple down, along with all the “weak” Khals who believed it was their right to pass judgment on her simply because of both her femininity and foreignness. The flames don’t touch her, however, and as she calmly walks out of the smoldering temple, the Dothraki fall to their knees in worship of her. Moreover, whether it’s done with a body double or not, this scene clarifies the importance of nudity on Game of Thrones; it’s important that the Dothraki acknowledge Daenerys as a full-breasted woman, and a mark of her power that she doesn’t bother to cover herself up.
For the most part, even the straggling plots this week aim toward unification; perhaps it’s unnecessary to show Ramsay murdering Osha (Natalia Tena), or maybe it just underscores the letter he sends to Jon, goading him to war. Viewers already understand how well Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) can manipulate young Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli), the ruler of the Eyrie, but at least those troops are being committed toward Sansa’s rescue. With the exception of Theon’s (Alfie Allen) return to the Iron Isles, there’s an immediate sense of purpose and resolution to most of these scenes.
There’s been a depression hanging over Game of Thrones that Jon puts into words when he bitterly tells loyal Edd (Ben Crompton) that “I fought, and I lost.” By the end of “Book of the Stranger,” Jon is ready to give it all one more try; even the wariest of viewers is likely to be equally convinced by this outstanding episode that there are still things worth fighting/watching for.
For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.