Monday, 16 May 2016

Game of Thrones - Book of the Stranger

Back in my review for "The Red Woman" a few weeks ago I discussed how each season of Game of Thrones has its own signature strength, and pondered over whether a future season would ever perfectly encapsulate the individual strengths of all that came before it. It's a tall order, granted, but I couldn't help but hope season six would be said season. Maybe it will be, and maybe it won't be, but either way "Book of the Stranger" is one of very few episodes that does manage to perfectly combine all of the strengths of the show's previous seasons. Here we have the intricate storytelling of season one, the exciting character dynamics of season two, the impending sense of a narrative explosion akin to season three, the eventfulness of season four and the thematic focus of season five. It may not have been the most explosive episode of the show - well, until that fiery final sequence - but this represents Game of Thrones firing on all cylinders in a way that only this show knows how.

"Book of the Stranger" has a tight, clear thematic focus from the first sequence, and this helps to bind the wide array of characters and locations together. This episode was about two things: it was about brothers & sisters, and it was about women focusing on getting what they want. After their wonderfully touching reunion (seriously, if you didn't start welling up I'd suggest you aren't even human), Jon and Sansa sit to discuss both the past and the future. This is brother and sister looking at how they've gotten to where they are, before working out where to go next - except their opinions clash. Jon doesn't want to fight anymore, but Sansa is insistent that they must reclaim Winterfell. Jon refuses to even entertain the idea, until a letter comes from Ramsay stating that he has their younger brother. Sansa pulls Jon around to her side, and they begin their plan to invade and reclaim Winterfell. It's a powerful series of sequences for a number of reasons, but the fact that the episode allows the female character to sway the mind of the male with regards to war makes this all the more important.

This theme of brothers & sisters all resonated in a variety of other stories tonight. We saw Theon return to Yara, as she tells him to stop crying and focus on their future. He tells him he will help her rule the Iron Islands. We had Margaery being permitted to visit her brother Loras in his cell, where she instructs him to stay strong and reminds him that the future of their house relies on him. We have Cersei and Jaime interrupting the small council meeting to discuss the High Sparrow with Kevan and Olenna, yet while it's Jaime who relays the plan to the others, Cersei remains in the frame behind him, and it's not difficult to work out that this is her plan and not his. These stories all focus on the brother & sister relationship, but allow the woman to take centre stage and focus on getting what she desires. The women of Game of Thrones may not actually accomplish much in this episode, but this wasn't an episode about accomplishment: this was an episode about strategy, and about scheming. We see brothers and sisters strategising and scheming together here, but the sister is the one leading the plan. It's a testament to the show's history that this feels fully natural, and not shoehorned in for the sake of a feminist approach. It feels real.

So while Sansa, Yara, Margaery and Cersei focused on beginning their plans, there was one woman who skipped right past the scheming and went straight into putting her plan into action. That woman is, of course, Daenerys Targaryen. After a slow but thoughtful beginning to her season, Dany's narrative has lurched forward with tonight's instalment. She has simultaneously broken free from the Dosh Khaleen, and proved to the entire Dothraki horde that she is a worthy leader. After the episode focused so heavily on female empowerment it was only fitting that it should wrap up with Dany, she is the show's feminist icon after all. As the various Khals taunt and mock Dany after she tells them she would make a better leader to the Dothraki, she sets the temple ablaze to kill them all and emerges from the flames naked and unharmed, as the entire Dothraki army recognise her power and bow to her. It's a powerful and poignant sequence, made even more exciting by the narrative progression it also represents. Emilia Clarke also gives her best performance here in a long time, so calm in the earlier moments yet so controlling and authoritative as the sequence escalates. It's a terrific scene in every last respect, and easily the strongest material of the season thus far.

Not every story managed to fit the brother and sister theme tonight as Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm and Missandei attempt to persuade the masters of Slaver's Bay to cut off their funding of the Sons of the Harpy and return to the slave-free environment Daenerys set up. While her sequences work to prove that Dany can make a great leader, this sequence also show her flaws in a powerful position: another great thing about this episode's portrayal of women, they're allowed to have flaws and make mistakes but still be just as powerful. This sequence was home to some of the most interesting and thought-provoking dialogue the show has ever offered, especially as Tyrion debates with Grey Worm and Missandei - who plays a large role in the debate, continuing the episode's focus on women. They discuss their differences in tactics in a fittingly intellectual manner, and I cannot wait to see where the show takes these characters next. "Book of the Stranger" is a stellar episode of Game of Thrones, boasting one of the most well plotted and thematically exciting scripts the show has had in a long time, as well as a plethora of powerhouse performances. The only issue is that the bar has really been set high now, and next week has got one hell of a task to live up to this.

Notes - 

  • Ramsay's murder of Osha was the only sequence here that didn't fully work for me. I like Ramsay as a character, even as he slips further and further into one-note territory Iwan Rheon manages to keep him compelling enough, but this scene felt so rushed in comparison to the other more fleshed out sequences that it didn't really have the impact it deserved. Still, RIP Osha. 
  • I especially liked how Jon refused to read the part of Ramsay's letter that mentioned raping Sansa, only for Sansa herself to snatch the letter away from him and read it aloud anyway. Sansa knows what has happened to her, and she is on a mission to not ever let that happen again. She knows what she wants, and she's not afraid to go out and get it. Her character development across the show is simply remarkable. 
  • The cinematography in that final sequence was stunning: Dany almost dances around the temple, fleeting from flame to flame but always remains visible in the background.
  • I had a feeling that Dany's story would head in this direction, but I was utterly convinced that Drogon would appear to set the temple on fire. The fact that Dany does it almost all herself is just so fucking great.
  • I still hope there is more for Dany to get out of this than the army. I want her to talk more with the Dosh Khaleen and learn from them. If she wants to rule Westeros she has a lot to learn, and this could be perfect both for her and her narrative within the show.
  • I still refuse to believe that Shaggy Dog is dead. House Umber has to be double crossing Ramsay, right? Right?
Next - The Door

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