Monday, 16 May 2016

Game of Thrones season 6, episode 4: 7 winners and 5 losers from "Book of the Stranger"

"Book of the Stranger" is one of those Game of Thrones episodes where showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pull back the curtain and reveal the major plot developments they've been building toward all along. It packs in dramatic reversals, new alliances, and the death of a once major character.

It is, in other words, a pretty solid installment of the show, and the first episode of the season that really feels like prime Game of Thrones. When it ended with Dany emerging from the flames to the worshipful bows of the Dothraki, I was finally invested in wherever this season is going. It still feels like the show is marking time between now and the point where all of the characters are finally on the same playing field. But at least the marking time is interesting.

Anyway, here are seven winners and five losers from "Book of the Stranger."

Winner 1: Queen Daenerys Targaryen

Game of Thrones

Dany's time among the Dothraki could only end one way: She somehow ended up with a gigantic army of Dothraki following her as she swept back into Meereen to reclaim what was once hers. Somehow, Jorah and Daario would be involved.

And I'll be honest: I wasn't looking forward to that outcome. I didn't see a way the show could pull it off without feeling like it was robbing Dany of her agency, or without resorting to some seriously weird storytelling loopholes.

I should have had more faith. Benioff and Weiss's solution for this is elegant in its simplicity: Dany is just going to show off her mutant superpower of being unable to be burnt by fire, thus inspiring the awe of the Dothraki. In the process, she'll be killing all of the khals who are essentially holding her prisoner by burning them to death.

The episode ends with Dany, the flames apparently not bothering her in the slightest, standing before her new army, smiling confidently, and it's probably her most bad-ass moment since she used her dragons to set those slavers on fire back in season three. Even the show's occasional lapses with female nudity don't bother it here. Dany might be naked, but she's also just a little terrifying. She's less objectified than she is some kind of demigod.

Anyway, as I discussed with a friend immediately after the episode, it's still not immediately clear why Dany is supposed to be a good and just ruler just because fire can't burn her, but that's also a hell of a lot more than any of the current presidential candidates can say.

Winner 2: Littlefinger gets back in the game

I'll be honest: I don't even know if Littlefinger knows exactly what he's trying to do at this point — right now, he's rallying the Vale's army in order to go take Winterfell back from Ramsay. His plotting seems to have spiraled out of control long ago, but he acts like it's all part of the plan. (Maybe that's his mutant superpower.)

But it's still great to see him again. Aidan Gillen is so good in this part, and so key to the show's view of power as a kind of cunning series of games and underhanded schemes, that I didn't mind that he's back in the Vale for what seems like no particular reason.

I'm sure that Littlefinger will be undone by his schemes at some point, but I'm just so glad to see the guy again. I could give him a hug.

Winner 3: Yara Greyjoy

Game of Thrones

The Greyjoy scene this week is mostly there to remind us that these characters exist, but if nothing else, Yara gets the backing of her brother, Theon, who's finally back in Pyke and thinks that she should sit on the kingdom's throne.

It's not immediately clear why he thinks this — other than the fact that Yara would be pretty great at it — but it's another good scene that contributes to the biggest sense "Book of the Stranger" gives off, which is…

Winner 4: Narrative progression

Game of Thrones has a frequent problem with feeling as if it's running in circles, unable to move forward. Some of this is by design — the characters are always keeping so many secrets from each other that they can't always be upfront about their true motivations, which can keep things from feeling like they're on track.

But just as much of it stems from the fact that Game of Thrones increasingly feels like it's trapped by those big moments it's perpetually building toward. When everybody on the show feels as if they're circling each other endlessly, it becomes a lot easier to wonder if anything is ever going to happen. And the show's fragmented design, with all of those characters scattered to the winds, doesn't help in that regard.

But "Book of the Stranger" did a hell of a job of making it seem like things are headed forward. In particular, it did a great job of bringing characters back together, sometimes for the first time in seasons, about which more in a moment.

Winner 5: The Lannister/Tyrell alliance

Game of Thrones

This alliance has been an alliance in name only pretty much since it was founded. The Tyrells don't trust the Lannisters as far as they can throw them, and the feeling is mutual. Cersei and Olenna, in particular, seem as if they're constantly attempting to figure out each other's weak points so they can go in for the kill.

Well, mutual enemies can quickly solidify even the most threadbare of alliances, which is exactly what happens in this episode, as the rise of the Faith Militant leads Cersei to propose that the Tyrells' army sweeps in and casts out those who are proposing to force Margaery go on her very own walk of shame.

That's something the Tyrells simply will not allow, which leads to their ultimate agreement with her plan. For the first time in ages, it feels like these characters are vaguely on the same page.

There's really no way this alliance lasts once the High Sparrow has been deposed, but on Game of Thrones, it's not politics so much as war that makes strange bedfellows. Margaery and Loras, brought low by imprisonment and seemingly at the lowest ebb of their hope, are about to get some from a most unlikely source.

(Bonus win: this storyline featured the funniest scene of the whole season, which was Pycelle exiting the council room while jingling. It took, like, 30 seconds and had to have been intentional comedy.)

Winner 6: Jon/Sansa shippers

The internet is filled with people who are certain of the young woman whom Jon Snow is meant to wed someday, presumably to serve as his queen. (I still think this show will end with Dany on the Iron Throne, but if you were going to place odds on it, Jon would probably be your safest bet.) The most popular suggestions — that I've seen, at least — are Dany and Arya. Why Arya? I don't really know, but this probably has something to do with it.

And yet this episode did a pretty good job of inflaming the hopes of any Jon/Sansa shippers out there, hoping the two will eventually fall in love. Granted, they believe they're brother and sister (though Jon's parentage remains murky), but this episode makes a point of showing how Sansa was never exactly sisterly to Jon, and that hug between the two at the episode's start (when he sees her at Castle Black) is long. If you're the kind of person who writes romantic fanfiction about Game of Thrones pairings, well, you've probably done so off of far less than that.

And then, as if to underline this point, director Daniel Sackheim inserts a shot of Sansa reaching over to take Jon's hand when encouraging him to ride into battle against Ramsay, in the vague hope that others in the North will support him. I don't actually think a Jon and Sansa romance is what the show is going for, but it's a little weird, nonetheless.

Winner 7: People who leave their TV on after Game of Thrones for Silicon Valley

That show is on an absolute tear this season.

Loser 1: Tyrion

Game of Thrones

I don't mean to keep picking on Tyrion, but while his plan to eventually get rid of slavery on Slaver's Bay more or less makes sense, this is not really a show that believes in trying hard not to make perfect the enemy of the good. While Tyrion is saying that slavery can remain legal for seven years, his ostensible queen is half a continent away, raising a gigantic army. She's probably not going to be all that happy with him when she finds out what he's done.

Plus, if you want to signal that a character has been morally compromised, there are few better ways to do so than by having them cut a deal to make slavery legal again. And, yes, the episode does a solid job of explaining why he would do this, and Tyrion's always been one to try to cut a deal, rather than hold out for righteousness. But it's still clear we're meant to be morally queasy about this deal — and about Tyrion making it.

I'm not really sure what the show is doing with the character at this point. I presume he'll come roaring back once Dany is back in town (and/or once the dragons become more integral to the plot), but he's easily the character who's been most hurt by the sense that the show is marking time. Here's hoping that ends soon.

Loser 2: Osha

This week's reminder that Ramsay Bolton is an absolute sociopath is that he kills Osha while she's attempting to seduce him, presumably to win her continued survival.

On the one hand, the second Osha returned to the series last week, it was all the more clear that the series had mostly brought her back to die. (It long ago ran out of major characters it could believably kill, so here's a semi-major one!)

On the other, the whole Ramsay thing is this endlessly repetitive wheel of sorrow, that never ends up saying anything more vital than, "Sometimes, people are awful to each other." That's a lesson the series has, perhaps, over-imparted.

Loser 3: People with low brightness settings on their TVs

Jorah and Daario on Game of Thrones

I'm watching this week's episode on a TV that I don't normally use, and the series' love of setting scenes in dark streets and interiors has simply gotten out of control.

In the scene where Jorah and Daario fight with the guy who comes upon them in Vaes Dothrak, I realized about halfway through that I couldn't follow it in the slightest. And unlike last week, when the editing rhythms combined to make the swordfight hard to follow, this episode's fight scene was mostly just impossible to see, unless you were watching in a completely dark room with a state-of-the-art HD TV. (I wasn't.)

I mean, I got what happened in the end, which was all that mattered. But it was still a pain to have to try to see.

Loser 4: People who were still kinda loyal to Stannis
In general, I'm into the scenes where characters who've never (or barely) met finally stop to talk to each other, but Brienne's arrival at Winterfell brings with it confirmation of Stannis's death, something she matter-of-factly conveys to Davos and Melisandre, as if she wants to make sure they're totally fine with him being dead.

They're a little horrified, of course, and I'll confess that I was slightly surprised to learn they didn't know he was dead. Searching what's happened so far this season, I realized they'd have no reason to know, but both have been so happy to simply switch allegiance to Jon that I assumed they either knew or assumed Stannis was dead.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. Davos had mostly just lost faith in his former king. But he didn't even know that Shireen was dead, which is a good reminder that news travels slowly in Westeros, when it travels at all.

Loser 5: Realistic travel times

Game of Thrones

Jorah and Daario caught up with Dany on a continent roughly the size of Asia in a matter of a week or two, seemingly, and from the "next week on" preview, it sure looks like Littlefinger is going to turn up at Castle Black next week, after being in the Vale. Does everybody in Westeros and Essos have secret cars they're not telling us about?

No live chat this week, but comments are open

Feel free to discuss the episode. I'll try to pop in to talk about it from time to time, but am otherwise busy traveling.

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