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Game of Thrones Review: "Book of the Stranger"

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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review: "Book of the Stranger"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.

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Josh,

There are many very remarkable things about Daenerys Targaryen, such as the fact that she’s (maybe?) the last surviving member of a family of kings, or that she has striking white hair, or that she took over a bunch of cities and freed a ton of slaves. But there are two things that are extraordinarily remarkable, and they are:

1. She has three actual, living dragons.

2. She can’t be killed, or even burned, by fire.

THAT’S NUTS. THOSE TWO THINGS ARE CRAZY.

And the reason I bring this up is because other than surviving one measly fire that she didn’t know she would survive, and accidentally hatching three dragon eggs, she hasn’t really done anything cool with either of these extraordinarily remarkable things. The dragons are either chained up in a cave or killing sheep on some poor guy’s farm, and she has not lit herself on fire intentionally even once. How can she even own the name “Daenerys the Unburnt” if she doesn’t test herself once in a while? I mean, I once ate 12 hot dogs in 20 minutes at a contest, but I was a teenager then, and as hard as I try, nobody calls me “The King of Pigs” anymore.

If it were me, and I had dragons and couldn’t be burned? I’d travel the world having the dragons breathe fire on my face while I juggled, until the world was so sick of it that they had me frozen to death in an ice dungeon.

In short, I am glad Daenerys used her fire trick again. Watching her walk out of the burning building was magnificent, and gave her character a much-needed dose of awe and power. More importantly, probably, it gives her some goddam forward momentum for once. I watched this scene, at first, with trepidation—Game of Thrones is wonderful for the way it never asks us to suspend our disbelief in terms for wild action scenes, because the consequences are always so grounded and organic. This was not grounded or very organic. One of my pet peeves is having to accept a series of unlikely events playing out in a perfect order when none of the individual events is very likely at all.

That was Daenerys with the other Khals. The minute she pushed over the first torch, and the Dothraki started running aimlessly around, I started laughing. At that point, it was looking more like a comic farce than an actual scene from a really good TV drama (I can’t wait for the first YouTuber to put that moment to “Yakkety Sax”), and having Daenerys march confidently around with her satisfied grin while a bunch of really strong warriors decided not to kill her seemed to be a bit much. Yes, even with the doors barred, and the floors covered with gasoline. A million things had to go exactly right for this plan to work, and call me a stickler, but that kinda pisses me off as a viewer. It’s why I liked Breaking Bad much less than most people—even in a batshit reality, I like the plot moves to make sense and not insult my intelligence.

THAT ALL BEING SAID—her emergence from the flames was pretty spectacular, and hopefully 19 years of Daenerys in limbo (time estimated) is now over, and she can make her way to Westeros and whatever fate awaits her there. If that’s the end result of a closing scene that was kind of silly, I’m pretty okay with it. Mhysa’s back, baby.

Also, apologies, but I have bring this up—last week you praised HBO and/or Emilia Clarke for putting a halt to the nude scenes, but topless Dany is back this week. I personally felt this was “empowering badass nudity” rather than “gratuitous sexualized nudity.” In other words, a perfect compromise between HBO’s pervert boob czar and those who want to preserve Khaleesi as a paragon of feminine strength. But I’m curious for your take.

Speaking of compromises, I unabashedly loved Tyrion negotiating with the slavers for a slow end to the institution. The diplomatic approach—achieving your ends, but doing it in a realistic way that caters to everyone’s self-interest—is the kind of realistic political move that makes me love this show. But it was even more powerful when Grey Worm dropped his own truth bomb, telling Tyrion that slavery is a bone-deep institution in Essos, and there are cultural (read: racial) concerns that are just as powerful as economic ones.

You don’t have to look too hard to see a parallel in our world. Slavery may have eventually died a “peaceful” death in parts of America as it became less and less critical to the economy, but we also have to face facts—the racism that began in that period echoes into the present, and is (and will always be) ingrained in the fabric of American life. And although we can talk about historical hypotheticals until we’re blue in the face, it took a real-life war to bring the nightmare to an end. Clever as Tyrion may be, there was more truth in Grey Worm’s message: If you’re going to erase slavery, you can only do it by force. There are limits to a Lannister’s shrewdness, and those limits begin at failing to understand the emotional undercurrents of a strange culture. This was brilliant, insightful commentary, and exemplifies perfectly why this show, and Martin’s books, transcend the genre. This is something way deeper than fantasy.

I’ll give you some quick parting thoughts on the other scenes, but I’ll leave the bulk of the glorious Jon/Sansa reunion, Baelish, and the King’s Landing madness to you.

—I want Tormund and Brienne to hook up. I know that’s crass, but anyone who doesn’t agree with me can go to hell. I secretly think she was super into it when he was eating the meat off the bone.

—I hate Ramsay Bolton, but I would 100 percent read his blog if he always wrote in the graphic, sinister, explicit style from the note to Jon.

—Cersei is leading Olenna by the nose, which is something I never thought I’d see. I don’t doubt that both women want the Sparrow gone, but I also don’t doubt that Cersei will do anything in her power to make sure Margaery dies in the process. Which is fair, since Olenna killed her son. But that one little threat of Margaery taking the walk of shame completely subdued the previously unsubduable older woman.

—What the hell did the Sparrow say to Tommen?! That’s the second week in a row HBO has done us dirty with a brutal cutaway. Or was it legitimately the walk of shame thing? In that case, he’s playing the entire castle, and obviously wants to be attacked. Or was it about the Cersei trial, which everyone on the Internet believes is setting up CleganeBowl. PS, I don’t believe that BS about him being a cobbler for a second.

—I think Robin Arryn is the only person in the seven kingdoms who could have given Joffrey the creeps. I’m not necessarily rooting for him to die, since he’s so powerless, but it will be a kind of quiet relief when it happens.

—Littlefinger! Still effortless wielding his power! God love him.

—Nothing like a smashed head to disguise a stab wound, am I right?

Okay Josh, kicking it your way. I get the sense I’ve written way too much, but please know that it was an act of restraint to keep this under 20,000 words.

—Shane

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Shane,

When you’re locked in a burning, I don’t think revenge is the first thing on your mind while you search for a way out. Especially when it appears like your murderer is going to burn alongside you. So let’s just enjoy the calm, merciless domination of Queen Daenerys over yet another group of men who are used to abusing their power and treating women as property. It was totally fitting that rather than running from the Dothraki when she had the chance, our Khaleesi instead faces her oppressors and burns them to ashes.

It was a classic Game of Thrones ending, and to answer your question, I think there’s a huge difference between a naked Daenerys standing proud in truimph as vanquisher of the Khals in front of her people and the Daenerys of last week, a captive standing naked in humiliation. HBO actually made the right call in both cases.

As for Tyrion’s approach to diplomacy, I do love the nuance of the show, even as we’d all love to see the slavers brought low immediately. Do yourself a favor and go back and watch the scene where Tyrion tries to identify with the other former slaves. Check out Varys’ reaction to Missandei’s burn. Without words, he manages to convey, “Day-um!”

But we’ve waited long enough to talk about the first of what I hope are many Stark reunions. Jon Snow and Sansa have both changed in unbelievable ways since they were last together, and it’s now Sansa whose strength brings determination to retake Winterfell. Despite Jon’s unlikely rise to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Sansa finds in her half-brother a broken man with no fight left in him. It’s Sansa who helps him rediscover his purpose.

Speaking of broken men, Theon Greyjoy is back looking for his own reason to still exist. I’m not sure why to even care about the Kingsmoot yet, except to keep saying “Kingsmoot,” which is kind of a cool word. But it’s far from clear what any of this dreary land has to with anything else in Westeros.

And poor Osha. We got one final great scene from the Wildling who risked everything to help Bran and Rickon escape from Theon’s raiding party. She’s completely cool in the face of her psychotic captor when he brags about flaying his enemy.

“Do you eat them after?” she asks?

“No.”

“Then I’ve seen worse.”

Since we’re talking about Ramsay here, I guess we should just be thankful that he gave her a quick death, rather than flaying her alive or setting her dogs loose on her. Still, can Sansa please kill this guy soon?

What makes this episode great, though, is the way the political and tactical games are taking shape, with Petyr Baelish finally getting The Vale into the mix, a move that no one, especially not Ramsay Bolton, will be expecting. Bolton is egging Jon Snow into war, and Snow has no choice but to walk willingly into that trap, though I’d take 2,000 wildlings over Bolton’s mercenaries, especially with Tormund, Brienne and the Red Witch on Jon’s side. And yes, Tormund giving Brienne the eye was priceless. Please let that happen.

Tyrion is playing a dangerous game in Meereen, one which may not please his queen when she returns. But there’s no denying his political acumen.

And that leaves King’s Landing, where Cersei has finally outmaneuvered the rest of the small council, but probably not the High Sparrow, who seems like he could go toe-to-toe with Littlefinger if he was given the chance. I certainly wouldn’t bet on anything happening in the capital without his indirect orchestration, even if that means an attack by the Tyrell army.

So, convince me I should care about anything that happens in the Iron Islands. And how do the Sparrows fit into the end game in King’s Landing?

—Josh

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Josh,

I was absolutely sure that Jon Snow would leave the Wall moments before Sansa arrived, because the writers of this are cruel and unusual and tend to deny us anything even remotely heartwarming. So when the horn sounded and we saw her at the gate, I let out a little cheer, because FINALLY something good happened for the Starks. It should escape our attention that this one was one of three sibling reunions from last night (Margaery-Loras and Yara-Theon were the others), and in every case it was the sister basically telling the brother to man up and stop acting like a little baby. Combine that with Mhysa-out-of-the-fire-Part-2 and Brienne confirming that she ended Stannis (but can we trust her??), and “Book of the Stranger” was a definite nod to feminine power in Westeros. Except for Osha—there was no way Ramsay was dying at her hands, and the minute she eyed the knife, I knew her time had come.

Sansa is right, of course—until they defeat Ramsay, there’s no safety for any Stark in the north. I’m not sure exactly where Jon thinks he can go. Right now, he’s sounding like a kid who just graduated college, has no career ambitions, and wants to backpack through Europe for a year. Sorry Jon, but that ain’t happening. If you’re going to survive, it has to be by force. There may be peace for you, somewhere down the line, but it’s a long way off and there’s a lot of fighting to be done in the meantime. But even as he was regressing, Sansa has turned into a complete badass. Not only is she ready to fight tooth and nail to reclaim what’s her (after some serious trauma of her own), but she’s put away her snobbery for good and knows how to relate to people. It was a small moment, but I found it touching when she put Dolorous Edd’s mind at ease about the soup…Sansa of four years ago didn’t have that common touch.

A couple last notes about the reunion at the Wall:

1. They really skipped over the part where Jon had to tell Sansa how he died and was then brought back to life by R’hollor. She seemed to accept that pretty easily. I hope there’s a DVD extra that shows us the moment when Jon brought it up, and for the next ten hours she’s like, “wait…so you died? And are now alive??” And Jon’s like, “that’s right, and also the same thing happened to your mom in the books, but I’m not exactly sure what the deal is here on HBO.”

2. When Tormund calculates how many wildlings he has ready to fight, he neglects to mention WUN-WUN THE F***ING GIANT. “Yeah, I have about 2,000 men…though maybe I should mention that one of them is worth about 1,000 on his own.”

3. Brienne’s arrival was a super, super timely intervention for Melisandre, because Davos had just asked her about the fate of Shireen, who he completely adored. We were about three seconds away from the Red Lady having to say, “well, funny story—I convinced Stannis to burn her at the stake because of a prophecy I had that clearly didn’t come true.” This was one of those silly TV moments that Game of Thrones usually doesn’t rely on, because Davos apparently never followed up after Brienne revealed Stannis’ (possible) death. In fact, Davos has been mighty incurious about Stannis since the Red Lady came back to the Wall. Isn’t that the first thing he would have asked? Regardless, when he finally discovers what happened to Shireen, all the magic in the world won’t save Melisandre, and I get the feeling his whole “that’s in the past” perspective will shatter like a steel sword hitting a White Walker.

As for the Kingsmoot, yeah, they’re really trying to make us care about the Iron Islands, which is barely better than Dorne in terms of places I don’t want to care about. Dorne has been dropped like a hot potato for now, but there’s no sign of abandoning Pyke. All of which means that they have a definite role to play in what comes next. One big theory is that they’ll provide the ships that bring Daenerys to Westeros, and now that they’ve pissed everyone off with their stupid land invasion, that outcome is looking more and more likely, because they really don’t have any other friends in the seven kingdoms. I’m also getting very curious whether the result of the Kingsmoot will play out differently on the show than in the books, but I won’t get into that too much since it’s spoiler territory. I just wanted to bring it up, since it’s the last chance for us bookies to lord it over the TV crowd.

In King’s Landing, I have no idea what this Sparrow is up to. Shouldn’t he be wayyy easier to kill? It looks like he fed Tommen some information on purpose—either about Cersei’s trial, or Margaery’s walk of shame—and the only reason to do that is to provoke the castle into action. Which means he wants to be attacked, for some reason. Now, there’s no way this guy can stand up to an actual army, so does that mean he intends to die in order to foment a popular rebellion? We still have no clue where this guy is coming from, but I encourage everyone to remember that every character in this show is playing the “game of thrones,” and I don’t think the High Sparrow is any different. Is he trying to weaken the crown on behalf of Daenerys? In that case, you’d have to imagine Varys set him up. Or are he and Littlefinger in cahoots, which would be such a classic Littlefinger move? Or maybe he’s just an actual religious zealot throwing a wrench into the works. Either way, he’s hugely effective as an agent provocateur, and he’s softening up the Lannister/Tyrell power base for whoever comes next. He even managed to open Tommen’s eyes to the fact that Cersei doesn’t like Margaery. The guy is devious.

Which leaves us with Littlefinger. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to sway the battle against Ramsay with his Vale army (can’t wait to see Ramsay die, even though I become more and more awed by Iwan Rheon’s acting chops with each passing week), but the question is, what comes next? There’s no way in hell this guy has any use for Jon Snow, but he’s going to depend on Sansa for legitimacy. Will she pardon him for leaving her to rot with Ramsay? I feel as though his situation is super, super precarious, especially when compared to the smarter version of Baelish we get in the books.

I’ll leave you with this, Josh: As the end-game gets nearer, what’s your top ten ranking of characters you want to see on the Iron Throne when the dust settles? This is a tough, tough question, because I’m definitely forcing you to pick your favorite Stark, and then throw him/her up against Dany. But I have faith.

—Shane

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Shane,

I’m not through with my first cup of coffee and you’re asking me for my definitive end-game ranking? Okay, but since that’s a chair meant for one, I’m not bothering to imagine with any co-ruler bullshit. Sorry Jon, but you don’t get to squeeze your ass in next to Dani’s, especially since she may be your sister (which would make Sansa only a cousin, and we know how Targaryens feel about family, and how you feel about redheads…sorry, still making it through my coffee…).

Okay, here goes, counting down to my top pick for ruler of all Westeros:

10. Varys – Not beloved by the populace, but my view of the populace is at all-time low right now thanks to our current presidential race, so screw ‘em. The time has come for an elitist foreign-born eunuch to lead.

9. Arya – The youngest daughter of Eddard may be my favorite Stark, but she’s probably least equipped to rule after all the trauma she’s been through. I just hope she doesn’t kill anyone I’ve come to love (you stay away from Dani, Ms. No One). Still, she’s earned some kind of happy ending.

8. Hot Pie – Because, King Hot Pie sounds awesome.

7. Littlefinger – This would not be a crowd-pleasing ending, but if we’ve basically been watching an extended adaptation of The Prince, Petyr is Machiavelli’s wet dream come to life onscreen. I think he’ll fall just short of executing the most brilliant and devious plan in the history of Westeros, but if Mayor Carcetti pulls it off, I won’t be the one complaining.

6. Tyrion Lannister – I can’t really see Tyrion ascending to the Iron Throne—I think murdering your father probably disqualifies you—but I’d be thrilled if he somehow pulled it off.

5. Sansa Stark – She’s come a long way since gazing vapidly at her handsome Crown Prince and imagining herself as queen. There’s no doubt that she’d be an awesome and just queen.

4. Jon Snow – Selfless, battle-hardened, wise, totally fit to be King. Plus he’d make Sam his Grand Maester.

3. Daenerys – The worst thing about this ending would just be how obvious it is.

2. Bran – A warg on the Iron Throne with a direwolf by his side and the ability to see what’s happening everywhere in the Kingdom, past and present. He’s been raised to be a leader and values fairness and goodness. Plus, he might be able to control dragons. Long live King Bran!

1. Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun – Sure, he wouldn’t actually fit on the Iron Throne, but I’d vote for Wun Wun, and we’d build him his own enormous Iron Throne. According to the books, the giant is a vegetarian and gentle until provoked. If he was king, he could send his knights north of the wall in search of a queen in a whole new spin off series for HBO, How I Met Your Giant Mother.

You’ll notice Rickon is missing from the list, but really all we know about him is that he’s a Stark and his direwolf is dead. Plus, if he’s king, that means that the rest of the Stark clan is probably not in a good place.

Please don’t die (again), Jon Snow.

—Josh

Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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