The Book of the Stranger

An examination of Game of Thrones S06 E04

introduction

As we examine this episode, I found the themes of knowing vs. understanding and the forging of new alliances in the face of an unknown future to be prominent fixtures. There are also significant moments for female characters (Brienne, Dany, and Sansa) taking charge of their situations and directly confronting broken treaties or systems, as well as substantial evidence propelling the show into a new, intricate future (Jon and Sansa’s alliance, Dany’s reemergence from the flames, Theon’s support for Yara, etc).

Other than a passing reference by the High Sparrow, the influence of The Stranger in this episode is at face value somewhat opaque. The Stranger, one of seven deities formed within The Faith of the Seven, is the most obscure component of the religion with an adherence to death and the unknown. With no Arya storyline this week, the role this figure plays in the context of the show becomes more theoretical than physical. As we will see in the Sparrow’s “backstory” and throughout the world in vague and obscure ways, the embrace of an unknown future becomes a central part of how understanding one’s role in this game factors into advancing. It is synonymous with the inner workings of this universe, as it exemplifies death and resurrection, through characters like Jon (physical) or Dany (societal) or the High Sparrow (metaphysical), in how interacting with this world provides us with an understanding of limitation that can forge the world to become as it should be.

strange things have happened to me

The story of the High Sparrow is that of a common man whose taste of a more luxurious lifestyle gave way to contempt and self-loathing for those he crushed on his climb up the ladder. After pulling Margaery from her cell and bestowing parables on her about high born families needing humility and his desire for a disintegrated upper class, the Sparrow is surprised to hear from the imprisoned Queen that she knows and understands how all the references he has alluded to have fostered his rebirth.

This moment of surprise unveils something distinct about this week’s episode in how the world is being shaped by those who have experienced the world through actions committed to them as opposed to actions committed by them. Margaery is one who knows how to play the game, even under these dire circumstances, and has experienced the hand of the Sparrows in a very personal and violating way. Her understanding of how to use the Sparrows dogmatics to illuminate her complacency, have somehow managed to give her equality though not her freedom.

This line of thinking reappears as Tyrion invokes a treaty with the Masters of Slavers Bay. Though he received a blessing from Dany in allowing him to advise her and her kingdoms, Tyrion has still had a difficult time breaching the political divide between Essos and Westeros. After remarking to Missandei that his time as a slave gave him knowledge on how to defeat the system, Tyrion is admonished and reminded that although his time may have given him insight into the life of a slave, it did not provide true understanding that comes from having been identified by it. Knowing and understanding are very abstract concepts. While knowing is formed through experience and perhaps education, understanding is formed when knowledge is conceptualized into a deeper connection between people, events, or messages. Knowledge can be easy to obtain, as Tyrion did with his brief tenure in slavery, yet true understanding comes from experiencing it with a kind of wisdom that occurs when the informed are allowed to reform the system.

Missandei and Grey Worm, both freed from a lifetime of slavery are rightly discouraged by Tyrion’s willingness to meet with the Masters, as it represents a step backwards. This immediacy mirrors Dany’s ruling strategy and does not allow for any shred of injustice through regardless of how the systems of this world have operated for centuries before. Tyrion, much like Margaery, still understands how to use diplomacy as a way to gain leverage over their opposition. His meeting with the Masters does not equate tolerance for a archaic system but a desire to understand how to truly break it. His knowledge has led him to Essos for good reason and if he wants to achieve a level of wisdom that comes from understanding how to achieve goals that Dany herself has not been able to accomplish, it must come with a level of strategy and cunning to inform and in essence, surprise those he is attempting to bring down.

Davos and Melisandre have a smaller yet poignant interaction this week. Melisandre now believes that Jon Snow is the “prince who was promised” and has vowed to follow him wherever he goes despite Davos’s involvement. Ser Davos, having never received a straightforward answer on the fate of the Baratheon family, confronts her fearing the absolute worst. At his core, Davos knows what Melisandre is capable of, yet he doesn’t understand how this knowledge is relevant given her recent revival of Jon. If he were to execute her or enact revenge, would the end result justify the means?

Brienne stepping in and admonishing both for their support of Stannis, while bluntly unveiling that it was she who executed their leader, shows a great degree of strength and bravado. Her dismissal of both their claims shows how little she cares for manipulation, and rails them into a degree of submission for how this new order will be mantained.

Its nice to see Brienne on top again.

a world on fire

In The Book of the Stranger we saw a profound step of confidence by the showrunners in giving us a satisfying full-circle moment for Dany. Mirroring the events of Season 1’s finale, Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from the flames of the Dosh Khaleen temple unscathed to immediate submission from the onlooking crowds. Her “phoenix from the fire” character beat has been done once before, in a time where her agency had all but been stripped away and her life with Drogo disintegrated, yet here it serves to push the story of “Dany the Conqueror” into the foreground.

From the beginning, Dany’s campaign for Westeros has always been a bit removed from the rest of this universe. While the inevitability of her traveling across the Narrow Sea is in some ways poetic, does it actually fit with what we know of her character or of George R.R. Martin? I suppose its a moot point to bring up this late in the came, yet as Tyrion noted last season, her rule of Essos did not exactly reflect sustainability. Her somewhat forceful ejection of all oppositions, speak to the type of strong willed leadership that is often rooted in a kind of Alexander the Great type scenario. In the end, if Dany the Conqueror becomes Queen of Westeros, will she weep for there are no more worlds left to conquer?

Subversion provided the books, and by proxy the show, with an openness and unpredictability that traditional fantasy wasn’t accustomed to. I’ve spoken twice this season about the plight of women finding a new platform for representation, and this episode absolutely confirms that trend. Dany is brought before the leaders of several khalasars, including Khal Moro, and is mocked by these men as both an object and as a slave. Her resistance to these catcalls and threats is a testament to her spirit, and her eventual toppling of the system in defiance, shows a fierce and powerful force to be reckoned with. As the leaders of the “old ways” die before her, Dany smiles-embracing this moment as a triumph over her past and a mirror for her now all but certain future.

There has been a lot of talk about the final shot in this scene, wherein Emilia Clarke stood naked before the crowd while juxtaposed with the burning temple. While the topic of body doubles and use of nudity have come up a lot in critical discussions of this show, I read this scene as using nudity to tell a definitive story point, and not to expose or undervalue Dany’s character development. Moments like this provide change to the status quo by delivering a character from a point of conflict or guilt (“loss” of Meereen by the Sons of the Harpy, Dany’s exodus on Drogon) to a moment of serenity or prosperity (emergence from the flames, toppling of the patriarchy). Emilia Clarke’s performance this week left little doubt of her abilities as an actress and significantly raised the level of interest in her storyline as we converge into the series final act.

If Dany does indeed leave Essos, she will need her council’s varied approaches to ruling to assist her and the support of those whom she has never met in solidifying her claim. The show took a definitive step this week in showcasing her abilities as “god like” in that same vein of “magic is returning” to this world, and setting the stage for a final confrontation (a song of ice and fire). Dany’s view of the world has been formed both from necessity in growing older (understanding) and in determining how rulers are to conduct themselves in a pluralistic world (knowing). Her “conqueror takes all” approach to power has hit some speedbumps over the last few seasons, but all in all she still stands as a force to be reckoned with.

My hope is that at some point we get to see behind this vale of strength to really determine who Dany is at her core and what she truly wants for herself and not just for her legacy. With Tyrion, Jorah, and the rest of her council providing her with resources and challenges, one hopes that this week’s big moment will also open the door for more opportunities for internal growth and development of the person behind the unburnt Mother of Dragons.

a song of ice

It has indeed been a long time.

The reunion of two Stark children is something every fan of this series has been longing for. As two characters who never interacted before on this show come together under heritage and a longing for renewed purpose, the prospects of a renewed Stark household may in fact have become a reality. While certainly never close, Jon and Sansa now see each other as equal and immediately begin to foster an adult sibling relationship allowing for past grievances to disintegrate while the roots of their familial bond hold firm. Both have experienced the world in very different ways, yet through recent events actually have more in common with one another than they yet realize.

After Jon’s death and resurrection, his perception of the world and its machinations have changed. No longer carrying the banner for the Watch, his ideal future would have him living a life of peace in the North with the remainder of his family until winter finally does come. Sansa’s arrival complicates this, as his brotherly/paternal instincts see her as something to protect and keep from the dangers of the world, yet Sansa is very adamant that she is done living a life of submission.

Sansa’s journey has taken many different turns over the years, and her spirit and character have become refined even in times of great emotional stress. The sexual abuse and isolation she dealt with last season stripped her of her agency in ways that will undoubtedly require years of healing to fully recover from, yet in just a few short moments we’ve already witnessed her taking charge of her own life in ways that commands respect. Her willingness to engage with Jon, not as a naive little girl but as a strong and wise young woman, is a measure of her ability to now actually take control of her birthright, i.e. the North. If we were to see this arc laid bare, Sansa wanting to run off to King’s Landing back in Season 1 illustrated her discontent with her family and the North, and a view of the world that was aligned with fairy tales and romanticism that has all but been snuffed out. Six seasons later, we find her in desire of the one part of herself that she denied, her namesake, and through partnership with Jon, she may finally find the purpose which she had long assumed would come from a life of luxury and vanity.

As I mentioned in a previous review this newly forged symmetry between the Stark children is becoming more and more compelling as time moves forward. Jon and Arya had the deepest relationship of any of the children back in Season 1, yet the reunion of Jon and Sansa this week demonstrates how each of these characters have experienced great turmoil and growth over time. Their understanding of their Stark identity has been continuously challenged, stripped away, and threatened at every turn- essentially causing them to accept other alliances and identities which would continue to seperate them. The Book of the Stranger demonstrates how through a deep understanding of their identities as Stark children reinforces how they will be able to reunite and take back what their owed. Bran and Arya, who ironically also never got along, are symmetrical in the same fashion as they both are gifted in the magic of the “old world” which should come in handy in the wars to come. Both Bran and Arya had to overcome societal perceptions and physical hindrances, and through an abdication to a mentor/teacher, they’ve become more disciplined and perhaps more understanding of the world as it is.

With Rickon in the hands of Ramsey and the death of Osha this week, the threatening letter came as no surprise. This turning point for the newly devised House Stark creates an opportunity for Jon to finally be accepted as a part of this namesake and for Sansa to embrace the identity she left behind. While there may soon come a realization for Jon in how he will play a role in the fight against the White Walker hoard, his mindset has shifted toward cementing a future for his family and in doing so, wrestling with his origins and place in the universe.

Sansa’s boldness in reading through her estranged husband’s vile writings show an immense degree of character. No longer satisfied with being subjugated, she is able to convince her council, her brother, and the Wildlings via Tormund, to join the cause for the North. This step of confidence shows Sansa’s leadership skill and her ability to act diplomatically in times of great duress. The scared and flighty girl we saw leaving for capital with dreams of marrying a prince, is all but forgotten, and in her place is a powerful Stark woman whose claim for the North is among the most legitimate campaigns we’ve witnessed thusfar in Westeros.

Thank you Weiss and Benioff, and perhaps George Martin in some way, for allowing us to finally see a shred of hope for the future of this household. As the conflict heats up, one can only hope that the “Queen of the North” and her resurrected commander brother, can withstand the politics of an increasingly immoral landscape where anything is game.

how far down the moon-door will we go?

I couldn’t not talk about the return of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish during this review, as his presence has been deeply missed over the course of the last season or so. While the inner workings of the former Master of Coin have been all but a mystery, his arrival at the Vale this week gave us some clue as to where he will be heading in the near future.

After negotiating a treaty with Roose Bolton, Littlefinger’s unexpected marriage proposal for Sansa Stark, ensuring her the rights and titles to her ancestral home, was in many ways misguided. There is still some debate as to whether Petyr knew just how terrible Ramsey really was- Sons of the Harpy (S05 E04)- and whether this plot has threads stretching back to King’s Landing and the Vale, as we saw in both The Gift (S05 E07) and Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (S05 E06) respectively.

Littlefinger’s power play saw the imprisonment of Cersei, Margaery, and Loras by the hands of the Sparrows, and there is a good chance that he is still in league with Lady Olenna, whom he helped administer poison to Joffrey to at the Purple Wedding (Lion and the Rose, S04 E02). What his ultimate motivations are is still unclear, yet I’d argue that the show has done a masterful job in reminding us how mysterious his agenda is and how it has had ties to nearly every political move in Westeros.

With his reunion with Robin Arryn this week, Littlefinger demonstrates a deep understanding of manipulation and forbearance in dealing with his detractors. By placating his young wards emotional bond to him, Littlefinger outmanuevers Lord Royce in getting him to agree to commanding the Knights of Vale in a campaign for Winterfell. This quest is beholden to this notion that Sansa will forgive his miscalculations and as soon as next week we may have an idea of how this relationship will play out in the future, yet there is still a undeniable degree of mystery as to where his plans will take them if she offers forgiveness.

Originally posted at: http://www.themiddleaisle.tumblr.com/ by Eric Wilkinson

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