Book of the Stranger

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This will be the EUGOTSOC Committee review of Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 4: ‘Book of the Stranger’ written by myself – Alexander Petkov: Publicity Officer.

The Showrunners had said that the theme of this season would be ‘Homecoming’ and to this moment that is quite accurate. Many characters have been trying to get back to where they were before and a lot of scenes this season continue to invoke imagery and themes from the first seasons of the show while in a very different and intriguing context. If there’s one criticism that I do have against the current season, it is that now that it’s officially covering material beyond the books and going its own separate way – you can tell that in their attempt to please the fans, the showrunners have made some of the story beats feel like fanfiction. And this problem is very heavily prominent in this episode.

‘Book of the Stranger’ as a title of the episode introduces us to a new perspective on the recurring theme of identity. The passage from ‘The Seven-Pointed Star’ that was referenced in the episode is all about the illusion of superiority and the fake fleeting nature of power as well as the emptiness of a materialistic life. The moral of the passage can be synthesised as ‘Power is no substitute for Identity’ and that is a very powerful notion for the World of Ice and Fire and has some really interesting implications about the storylines this week as well as where the overall story is headed.

The episode starts with a pretty unbelievable scenario – a Stark family members’ reunion for Jon and Sansa. The scenes at Castle Black are also completed by interactions we never thought we’d see – Brienne and Melisandre or Brienne – Tormund (I’ll get to that one later). With that said all the scenes at Castle Black are extremely heartfelt and well-acted and all the characters work amazingly off each other. We see Melisandre returning to her previous self-assured self, claiming that Jon Snow is ‘The prince that was promised’. Seeing how since his resurrection Jon has wanted to completely cut himself from the wars to come, this puts his character in a much more tragic context, as it seems he will be pushed to battle by characters such as Melisandre and Sansa. It is a quite nice touch that when Sansa suggests violence Jon repeats Alliser Thorne’s last words: ‘I fought. I lost…’. It is at that point that Jon realises that both he and Thorne lived and died doing what they believed to be right. This respect for his enemy is very similar to the enlightenment the High Sparrow talks of later in the episode when referring to the Book of the Stranger. And in Jon’s case – his death and resurrection play the role of his metaphorical visit to the graveyard from the story. This dream of peace is however shattered by the threat of Ramsey Bolton who sends a ‘Bastard Letter’ taunting Jon in a very savage, naturalistic yet poetic manner.

For Davos and Melisandre, the topic of Stannis is still a big sore and Brienne’s presence around is not making things easier. And here is one of the more fanfiction-y things this season – the hinted potential romance between Tormund and Brienne. It is too perfect! ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ is a recurring theme in relationships both in the books and in the show – and on top both characters have distinct affiliations with bears. I have to say I do enjoy this ship a lot but it’s so brilliant it actually breaks my immersion in the episode.

Back to more serious things in the North – Osha’s seducing technique fails on Ramsey, making her return on the show really brief. We see a very grown Robin Arryn in the Vale in a scene which very much feels like it’s part of the earlier and more-focused seasons of Game of Thrones. It is really nice to see Littlefinger again and I think I am not alone in thinking that we’re all looking forward to his scheming this season. We also get a hint that Robin might be a warg (when the shot lingers on the falcon mimicking an expression we’d expect from his new master) so that’s another thing to look forward to. Another short scene this episode is the reunion between Yara and Theon. This is the second character this episode that is tired of playing the Game of Thrones. Theon has been stripped of his masculinity and pride and all he wants now is to be accepted by and helpful to his family and his people by supporting his sister. Theon’s metaphorical graveyard is his time in Winterfell being tortured by Ramsey. It is a very touching scene and works well with the theme of the episode (as we see Theon choosing identity over power) but seeing how a Kingsmoot is coming and Euron has returned – it is unlikely that Theon will find peace.

The scenes in King’s Landing this episode I felt worked really well in providing the centrepiece of the power versus identity conflict. They also invoked the spirit of true Game of Thrones intrigue such as we haven’t seen in at least a season and a half. The High Sparrow’s monologue about his past and the meaning of the Book of the Stranger in front of Margaery is truly brilliant and was perfectly delivered but much like most of the slower moments like this in the show I think this one will remain lost on the general public along with its message. It certainly makes me wonder whether the story is headed in the direction of discarding one’s power and seeking one’s identity to the end of senseless violence. This idea, however, is completely lost on the other characters as we see Margaery believing the High Sparrow’s words to be aimed at tricking her into betraying her brother. The scene of her with Loras is really touching as she’s trying to give courage to her brother. Loras, however, is broken and has lost the will for both power and identity. This mostly underlines the failure of the faith’s ideals (assuming that they are central to the Sparrows’ movement to begin with, which is arguable, I admit).

This is followed by a curious and intriguing series of scenes with Cersei. She first learns a supposed secret that the High Sparrow revealed to Tommen. Then claims in front of The Queen of Thorns and her uncle Kevan that Margaery is going to have a walk of shame soon. This makes them agree to march the Tyrell army into the city in order to prevent Margaery’s humiliation. Of course, a lot of the dialogue during these scenes is skipped over so we don’t know whether that was what the High Sparrow told Tommen. And this opens the possibility that someone is being played, which is something we haven’t seen in the show for a while – making it an exciting prospect. (Of course, the more boring alternative exists that everyone is telling the truth and the showrunners were just cutting out unnecessary repetition to help the runtime) These scenes in King’s Landing invoke the notion of power as one’s base of identity which is in complete opposition to the Book of the Stranger and the parallel could be made that these characters’ actions are their attempts at cheating Death. This is reinforced by perhaps the darkest line delivered by our beloved Queen of Thorns to date: ‘Many will die no matter what we do. Better them than us!’

In Meereen Tyrion is trying to resolve the city’s problems with the surrounding Slave Cities with diplomacy. And here lie some of the problems I have with this episode. I actually did enjoy Missandei and Grey Worm’s expressions during the negotiations and their comments of distrust afterwards along with them bitterly ignoring their own principles whilst even for a brief moment for the sake of keeping peace. Yes, they were a tad heavy-handed but still worked well, I feel. What really threw me off was Tyrion telling slave-owners that his feudal family’s fortune was acquired more morally than theirs. In an interview the showrunners even stated that they intentionally paralleled Tyrion with Abraham Lincoln in that scene. And this is a major problem with the show in general – you can’t just go around mixing metaphors irresponsibly and making random modernish world commentary. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t provide commentary – but do so in a way that makes sense with the story you’re telling. We had the portrayal of religious extremism with Stannis, a metaphor for the US conflict in the Middle East with the Sons of the Harpy storyline and now mixing feudalism with American Civil War. These parallels do not make the story more nuanced or deeper but rather turn something that could be a subtle message into something that can feel unnecessarily forced.

This for me embodies the ‘Viewer Paradox’. We’ve seen so many instances of the show being beautifully subtle and surprising us with its wit and others when it goes out of its way to prove a point which is arguably not appropriate. In that case you always read too much and too little simultaneously into the story presented. And I’m not gonna lie this is one of the reasons we all love this show but I felt like I had to address this issue, especially in light of the last storyline left to cover from this week: Daenerys.

There’s not much to be said about the Jorah – Daario duo – I’m glad how their dynamic changed once Jorah’s greyscale was revealed and I also liked Daario’s sense of humour to an extent. Everything, however, is leading to the big scene where all the Khals are gathered to decide Daenerys’ fate. And that is by far the most fanfiction-y scene in Game of Thrones and I honestly can’t get my head around it. In the past few seasons we’ve seen scenes of Dany acting ruthless and cruel occasionally, which led the viewer to question exactly how much like the Mad King she really is. Here under the guise of fighting male oppression she smugly burns all the khals alive in the temple of the Dosh Khaleen and emerges unburnt. And during that scene she is as close to being exactly as cruel and terrible as the Mad King as she’s ever been. What bothers me the most about this scene is how out of place and unnecessary it feels (hence me calling it fanfiction-y). It is good for nice visuals and shock value but brings nothing new. We’ve already seen Dany emerge unburnt from a fire in Vaes Dothrak – at the end of Season 1 when the dragons hatched. But now – it’s a bigger fire but it’s the exact same thing (minus the dragons). Also such a big ‘triumphant’ moment feels really weird this early in the season. Another thing that troubled me was how much this scene reminded me of the ‘Weak men will never rule Dorne again’ scene from earlier this season.

With all that aside, putting this scene in the context of this episode’s theme – it seems that Daenerys is confusing power with identity which makes her a villain in the scope of the series. Of course, this is only how I feel about it and this brings us back to the ‘Viewer Paradox’. It is impossible to be sure if the showrunners mean to depict Dany as a protagonist or antagonist all because of mixed messages. One thing is certain though – we all want to see where the story takes Dany next after she has assimilated all of the dothraki.

Overall I quite liked this episode – I feel like it was the most thematically consistent of this season so far even if it’s not my favourite. Both power and identity are important concepts in the world of Ice and Fire so it was quite intriguing to see a new spin on their conflict. And despite all my ranting, I’m as hyped as ever to see where this season is headed!

Thank you for reading my review of ‘Book of the Stranger’ and I hope you are as excited as I am for the coming episodes.

 

Alexander Petkov

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