Warning: Spoilers ahead
After a couple of weeks in which the storytelling deteriorated alarmingly The Book of the Stranger episode last night marked a rip-roaring return to form. While earlier weeks felt like awkward attempts to shove the plot forward, this episode finally began to articulate the ideas behind the looming confrontations.
There’s a popular conception that besides blood, tits and dragons, Game of Thrones’ true power is in its big set pieces that seem to come out of nowhere – Ned Stark losing his head on the steps of Baelor, Robb Stark’s betrayal at the worst wedding reception ever, Oberyn’s skull being crushed like a melon at the hands of the Mountain.
But while these moments populate our collective consciousness, it’s the writers’ work in detailing the characters that makes them such rewarding payoffs – think Ned’s honesty and honour, Robb’s heroism and value of virtue or Oberyn’s thirst for vengeance mixed with hubris.
This episode’s climactic event – Daenerys torching the temple of the Dosh Khaleen with the imprudent Khals within – was far more familiar and predictable then any of those previously mentioned events, but it still came from a character driven place.
Yes, we have seen Daenerys use her apparent superhuman flame retardant powers to kill her enemies; yes, we had seen her turn the tables dramatically on her opponents with an act of firepower; yes, we had seen her do these things to gain the support of the exact same group of people; yes, we had heard her use almost the exact same phrases before; yes, this scene echoed countless elements of her storyline so far – but it also felt like the symbolic embracing of her destiny.
With the show starting to consciously evoke its own history in a variety of ways, Daenerys return to Vaes Dothrak and eventual gathering of a new khalasar under her command brings her back to the roots of her character trajectory.
This city was the place where she became more than simply an exiled princess to a faraway crown, cowed and bullied by a demented brother, — she was a person of power and influence on her own rights. While once she dreamed of conquering the world with her Khal and son by her side, now Daenerys appears set to take what is before her on her own terms.
While this final scene was another triumphant display of smiting ignorant assholes, the act of burning the temple itself seemed to defy conventional logic.
Perhaps we will see a scene next week where the setup for the act was done with the help of Jorah and Daario, but there is no way an entire temple could so easily be engulfed in flames with the mere push of a couple of conveniently placed fire torches. Either the Dothraki build their houses out of the world’s most flammable materials on top of the continent’s most combustible sand, or there is some sloppy scene construction going on. I’m going to leave it to you to decide. (If only there was a source of instantaneous fire that Daenerys could have called upon.)
Speaking of sloppy plotting…
Last week’s climax of Jon Snow downing his cloak and theatrically storming off felt contrived and contrary to almost everything we know about his character. Death can change a person and the rationales given to Ed and Sansa reveal Jon’s desire to forge a new life in more comfortable climes – and they ring true.
His reluctance to repeat the errors that led him to receive several knives to the belly is understandable and justifies his decision to leave the Night’s Watch. But adding them after the fact doesn’t make last week’s abrupt U-turn any better storytelling.
The great Game of Thrones moments mentioned above work because we understand the characters making those decisions and, more often, mistakes. We can sympathise with their motivations. If something unpredictable happens it is because we don’t know them well enough. (The moments of hesitation as the sickly and wildly volatile Robyn Arryn considers whether to throw Lord Royce out of the Moon Door are filled with the threat of an unknowable mind wielding absolute power).
Jon Snow does not fall into that category – and retrospectively providing us rationales for his behaviour is not clever, but confusing storytelling.
Ramsey’s letter to Jon is a much clearer confrontation in the making. By balancing the lives of two of his siblings and the wildling peace he helped create at the mercy of a madman who usurped his family’s claim to the North, Jon is now presented with a pretty clear purpose .
Jon’s internal conflict between keeping his oath to the Night’s Watch and his willingness to protect the lives of innocents and honour his family’s heritage is a theme previously referred to and is far more interesting than him simply deciding it’s time for a holiday.
The reunion of Jon and Sansa represents the first time in six seasons of near misses that two Stark children have actually met up. Back in Season One, Episode Two Jon left Winterfell for The Wall with Ned’s promise to reveal the identity of his mother while Sansa headed in the opposite direction for King’s Landing.
Their meeting is a genuinely touching moment even if the two were never the closest of companions — they have never shared more than a couple of scenes together and those were in the pilot episode.
If Jon had revealed that he was resurrected was more or less glossed over, and if Sansa was impressed or simply amazed that magic exists didn’t register either.
The impact of Jon’s resurrection has been rather fleeting which makes it a bit of an anti-climax. Apart from a sulky Melisandre, a wide-eyed Tormund, a few hung brothers of the Night’s Watch, and the trigger for Jon to technically emancipate himself from his vows, not much has really happened as a result of what should be a pretty big move.
While the events at The Wall and Vaes Dothrak are mixture of the brilliant and the ho-hum, the other plot lines featured in The Book of the Stranger were excellently handled.
Meereen has never been the most coherent of plotlines, but Tyrion’s negotiations for the coalition of slavers balanced the competing interests of the different parties in a succinct and interesting way.
Knowing that military campaigns against the foreign cities would leave them open to further destabilisation from within, Tyrion seeks out the most practical solution – a peace brokered on compromise.
The problem may be that neither side has a great reason to meet Tyrion in the middle. The Masters have no great reason to relinquish their economic ownership of a highly profitable workforce, particularly when Tyrion guarantees the dragon force they fear is not long for the region. There may be a sting in these Harpys’ tails yet.
Meanwhile, the former slaves understandably despise the Masters and fear the return of slavery. The look of horror and disgust on Missandei and Grey Worm hint that this is an extremely unpalatable option for them even if they are willing to play along – for the time bein .
Tyrion is relying on both sides to see the eventual benefits for each of them but this is a highly emotional issue for the others involved. Either side may be willing to go against their long-term self-interests to sate their immediate aims.