The characters of “Game of Thrones” are grappling with a huge amount of unfinished business these days. People have changed, old forms of government have fallen away, past relationships and loyalties can’t be relied on and new forms of government and social organization haven’t quite taken hold yet. From Meereen to the North to King’s Landing and beyond, the members of a series of fresh alliances — some of them quite new, others uncomfortable and almost all of them untested — are trying to impose new ways on various cities and install new regimes in a number of regions. But there’s no telling what will take and what will fall away again. “Better them than us” — to quote Lady Olenna Tyrell — seems to be the fallback position of the day.
But that’s not a system of government; that’s not a belief system that one can sway a large group of people with. Those who aren’t in power have to be inspired; they have to want to follow something, and die for it, if necessary. Some characters in this story have good stories and silver tongues; others excel at persuasion and manipulation; still others are selfless, more are brutal and unforgiving.
None of them has amassed the kind of dependable power base that is needed to actually rule.
So the ending of this episode, coming as it does on the heels of so many unsettled moments and shaky alliances, makes a certain amount of sense. Just about everyone on this show is yearning or even desperate for some kind of dominion to be imposed and a natural kind of authority to reveal itself. One look at the fatuous Robin Arryn or the vacillating Tommen Lannister is all you need to be reminded that perhaps the inheritance of titles, lands and power may not be the best system of government ever.
But a young woman who has dragons (sometimes) and who has survived cataclysmic blazes untouched? Twice? In a confusing and brutal world, it makes a certain amount of sense to put money on her. This is a woman who appears not only unscathed by disaster, but strengthened by it.
From her first moments on the show, Emilia Clarke made Daenerys compelling, and even when the show hasn’t quite known what to do with her, the story she has told with the character has always been worth watching. As Dany has come into her own as a woman and as a queen, Clarke has gained ever greater mastery of her performance and her charisma only grows. That was certainly true in this episode.
“Book of the Stranger” contained several callbacks to previous episodes of the show (as so many episodes do these days). Of course, it was hard not to think of Daenerys’ queenly gaze after the fire that birthed her baby dragons at the end of season one while watching the final scene in tonight’s episode. In the patient smirk she wore inside the Dosh Khaleen, while enduring the Khals’ macho posturing, and in the serene look of command she had when she emerged from the blaze that engulfed the building, Daenerys told a story about what she would do for her people. She would vanquish her enemies and emerge triumphant. Maybe, in her way, she is as unkillable as, say, Jon Snow.
Now, of course, the Dothraki don’t know whether or not Dany is really that powerful and will remain that way. She’s certainly made her share of big mistakes. Also, every core belief and idea that people held dear in Westeros and in Meereen and just about everywhere else has been tested. Every creed has been shown to be false, or at least unreliable. Melisandre may believe in the Lord of Light again and the High Sparrow may have a very different unshakeable faith, but those are just stories that those two are telling themselves.
Maybe the story that Daenerys is telling is true, maybe it isn’t; even she doesn’t know. All kinds of prophecies have been shown to be unreliable as well. But more than ever, “Game of Thrones” is the story of people who are looking for any port in a storm. Right now, the cult of Daenerys seems like a safe haven, even for otherwise cynical men like Jorah and Daario. Even they believe. For now, they have no other purpose but to follow their Khaleesi, even to their deaths. For now.
Also offering certainty this week was the High Sparrow. When you hire an actor like Jonathan Pryce, you make sure to give him some scenes in which he can prove that he’s a master of the monologue, as he did tonight. The danger of the High Sparrow is that he seems so utterly reasonable in person. He told a very simple tale about his conversion — one so simple that Margaery could guess the ending (maybe she’d already heard the spoilers?).
Even so, you can see why the High Sparrow has a spellbinding effect on others: What he talks about is so simple. Give up your search for power, money and status — which, let’s face it, has long been the prime motivator for a lot of players in this game. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to serve the many-faced god that is greed? Wouldn’t it be nice if people could be free of the desperate fight for advancement or simply survival?
Of course, the High Sparrow replaced one blind spot with another; he now serves a simplistic and tyrannical faith that makes almost everyone but him and his followers a sinner who must be punished. But Pryce delivered the Sparrow’s speech with such conviction that you could almost see why people might adopt his narrow worldview. It’s easy to understand, if nothing else.
Perhaps the most delightful thing about the Sparrow is that he produced one of this episode’s most delicious new alliances. Olenna Tyrell and Cersei Lannister would rather eat glass than work together, but they grudgingly realized they must join forces to unseat the Sparrow and free Loras and Margaery. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens when the Tyrell forces enter the city and try to retake it from the Sparrow and his fanatical followers. All things considered, it’d be wise to bet on this alliance of high-born ladies.
Sansa was also basically fed up with just reacting to all the things that have happened to her. Going on the offensive is the order of the day. And in a number of the show’s stories at this point, male characters are taking a back seat to the women around them.
Recall what was said by the lead Khal that Dany burned alive (I don’t know his name, but others have called him Khal Brogo and I can’t think of a better name). He threatened Dany with gang rape, and that was the same threat leveled by the repulsive Ramsay, who promised Sansa, whom he’d previously raped and terrorized, more of the same. The story moves that are ensuring that some of the women of “Game of Thrones” have more proactive agency within the saga don’t erase “Game of Thrones” often troubling gender politics (to say nothing of how the show deals with race, which is a whole other problem).
There’s been a lot of sexual assault, rape and objectification of women over the years on this show, and much of it has (and still does) play into some of TV’s most tired and predictable tropes. That said, this season there certainly seems to be a decided tilt toward female characters, several of whom are coming to the fore and unapologetically going after and wielding power in a wide range of sub-plots. “Game of Thrones” is often focusing on the women who have been used and abused by those in power, all of whom have no more time for the codes, governing systems and cultures that subjected them to any number of humiliations and crimes.
In the Iron Islands, Theon backed his sister, and though we haven’t seen a lot of Yara Greyjoy, that seems like the logical move. Tommen is weak and foolish; listening to Grand Maester Pycelle is proof of that, so it’s left to Olenna and Cersei to marshal their clans’ forces against a common enemy. Jon Snow wants to be done with fighting, but the look in Sansa’s eyes told him what he has always known: There will not be an end to fighting any time soon. The must keep going, no matter how hard it is. Even if you don’t want to fight or particularly like your allies, you must keep going and take the fight to your enemies. Jon has suffered, but so has Sansa, and they’re both alive, so they must fight. She apologized for being snippy to him in the past, but she did not apologize for pushing him to keep going.
In that battle, it’s likely that the soldiers from the Vale will join up with the Wildlings and the remnants of the Night’s Watch for the coming assault on Winterfell. It can’t come soon enough. The sooner Ramsay Bolton is dead, the better for the show. There are many different shows inside “Game of Thrones”; sometimes it’s a chamber drama featuring the sharp-tongued and wily Cersei or Tyrion or Varys. Quite often it’s an action-adventure chronicle or a road-trip buddy comedy. It can be most enjoyable, as it was in this episode, when characters who’ve never met before or rarely been in contact meet or reunite. Lots of secrets can come out; unlikely friendships can begin to emerge; and many conflicts and clashing agendas can be set up (for instance, how long before Davos finds out how Stannis’ daughter Shireen died? Things are likely to get tricky between him and Melisandre, probably sooner rather than later).
But Ramsay is undoubtedly the show’s Achilles’ heel at this point. His bloodthirsty sadism is boring, quite simply. This Week in Ramsay Is Always the Worst: He killed Osha, to no one’s surprise. Scenes with Ramsay have almost no suspense at this point, because he always does something bloody, cruel and quite possibly murderous. Lord Bolton supplies nothing but predictability at this point.
But with all of these alliances forming and plans being made, it’s hard to believe that he will be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North for long.
A few final thoughts:
- Welcome back, Robin Arryn! No one missed you, but at least you provided Littlefinger with a few opportunities to work his manipulative magic.
- Speaking of deal-making, Tyrion worked out a truce of sorts with the slavers who had been backing the revolt in Meereen. The slavers themselves weren’t as hard to win over as Grey Worm and Missandei, who had to watch as the slave-free world that Daenerys had (sort of) created took a back seat to the realities of the day. Given how quickly things change in this world, who knows if anyone will be around to enforce the ban on slavery in seven years time, but the compromise Tyrion worked out will have to do for the moment, and both of them eventually came to grudgingly understand that.
- Great moments in “Game of Thrones” comedy: Grey Worm and Missandei enduring Tyrion’s terrible Valerian; the angry glares between Cersei and Pycelle as he clanked out of Tommen’s study; the road-trip mismatched-buddy comedy of Daario and Jorah as they approached the Dothraki city; and finally, “Game of Thrones” has given us many fine GIFs over the years, but it will be hard to top this one. Watching Tormund’s seductive eating style meeting Brienne’s undisguised disgust was truly magical. If the show doesn’t give us a few more scenes of these two together this season, that would be awful.
- Great moments in callbacks: Theon was framed on the ship exactly as Arya was as she left Westeros.
- It’s been a while since we saw Loras, who’s doing worse than his sister Margaery. If she ever is sprung, I can’t imagine Tommen and Margaery going the distance as a couple, but then, anything’s possible at this point.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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