They'll underestimate us every time and we will use that to our advantage
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Daniel Sackheim
The middle of a Game of Thrones season is always the strangest part: there's no longer the excitement of a season getting started, nor is there the anticipation of final events that will carry a huge effect into the next season. Sometimes though, D&D find a way to dish out an incredibly strong episode during the middle of a season, and "Book of the Stranger" is one such example of that. The episode doesn't have any surprises on the level of "Baelor" or "The Red Wedding", nor does it feature attention-grabbing set pieces that match the likes of "Blackwater" and Hardhome". What makes "Book of the Stranger" such a tip-notch episode is the importance of the events that unfold, and how well those events are executed.
Right off the bat, we get one of the most anticipated events of the entire series: a reunion between Stark siblings. The cloud of despair left by Jon at the end of "Oathbreaker" swiftly turns into an irresistibly heartwarming moment, as Sansa arrives at Castle Black with Brienne and Podrick, and gives Jon the biggest hug of his life. The hug only lasts a few seconds, but god damn it do we need to talk about it. The funny thing is that of all the Stark children that could have reunited first, it ended up being the two that had no kind of previous relationship, at least, not from what we saw during the early episodes of season one. Jon and Sansa never hated each other. They just never had any friendly conversations with one another. Years later though, after all the suffering that Sansa has been through, at the hands of Joffrey, the Lannisters, and Ramsay, she has finally reached a place where she can be safe, and she doesn't give a damn that she was never really close to Jon. Seeing a member of her family for the first time in years is only half of what makes this such a heartwarming moment, though. The other half is knowing Sansa has, at long last, found somewhere where no one can hurt her. We've been with her every step of the way, watching her get insulted, beaten, raped, any other cruel act that someone could commit to a young Stark girl. She hung tough the entire way, and her undying hope for a better tomorrow has finally paid off. The close-up on Sophie Turner's face right before the end of the hug is a phenomenal moment that likely will go unnoticed. It's as if all the fear and anger completely drains out of Sansa, and Sophie Turner delivers it beautifully.
One can only hope that a Game of Thrones episode is stacked with these kind of precious moments. Nothing else in "Book of the Stranger" is as heartwarming as Jon and Sansa reuniting, but there are certainly some other happy moments that feel like a triumph for certain characters. Theon is able to make his way back home to the Iron Islands, although Yara gives him anything but a warm welcome. I like the display of Theon's newfound humbleness here: despite having the strongest claim to the Salt Throne, he knows that he is not capable of ruling the Iron Islands, promising to support Yara's claim. Theon had spent much of the early seasons struggling to earn the respect he thought he deserved, but after his traumatic experience with Ramsay, he has come to better understand that his pride is not of the utmost concern. Theon is now walking down the path of redemption, and helping his sister become the new ruler of the Iron Islands seems like a great place to start.
Another happy moment, one that is meant to be awe-inspiring more than anything: Daenerys kills all the khals and shows the Dothraki people that she cannot be killed with fire. It never really struck me the first time that I was watching seasons one through six about two years ago that scenes like this one of Daenerys standing naked and unharmed among a burning temple are running the risk of offending people who are religious and/or spiritual. While I think it's a bit extreme to compare Daenerys to someone like Jesus Christ or Muhammad, there's no denying that moments like this one and the one at the end of "Fire and Blood" back in season one are attempting to evoke the idea that Daenerys has a mystical power within her that would make anyone who sees her want to follow her and serve her. The Dothraki, ruthless as they are, are unable to deny that this seemingly harmless woman is capable of doing extraordinary works. She has survived flames that would kill even the most vicious of men, and she gave birth to dragons: creatures that had not existed for centuries. Call these acts miracles if you want, but the matter of the fact is that Daenerys has always let her actions do the talking for her, and now they have earned her the servitude of people that seemed like they would never agree to serve. Khal Drogo is looking down on Daenerys and is smiling with approval.
I was coming very close to declaring "Book of the Stranger" a masterpiece episode based on the terrific moments I mentioned above, but there is one nagging scene that ends up being a lot more shaky than it has any right to be. Petyr Baelish makes his first appearance of the season, greeting Robin Arryn with a pet falcon and lying about Sansa ended up in Winterfell and not in Riverrun. The whole scene ends up being a rather bizarre attempt at building tension, as Baelish manipulates Robin into considering executing Yohn Royce (Rupert Vansittart), when Royce attempts to call out Baelish for his lies. The main thing that falls short in this scene is the blocking. Robin Arryn looks completely distracted and like he's not at all a part of the conversation, with his body turned away as if he was acting as a background character. The surrounding Vale knights don't even seem to move when Baelish asks Robin to make a decision about executing Royce, like there's no need to at least keep Royce at arm's length, just in case Royce attempts to escape. When Robin is making the decision to have Royce executed or not, he doesn't even so much as look in Royce's direction, like it's at the bottom of his current to-do list. The entire sequence never feels like it's building any kind of tension at all and borders on being entirely pointless. Of all the characters to flirt with having killed at the moment, why choose Yohn Royce?
That awkward scene with Petyr Baelish is only a tiny smear on what is the best episode of season six thus far. A heartwarming reunion between Jon and Sansa, Theon Greyoy's return home, and a fiery finale with Daenerys make "Book of the Stranger" one of the best middle of the season episodes in all of Game of Thrones. It's as well executed as Game of Thrones' penultimate and season finale episodes, despite not having any super game-changing stakes. Daenerys earning the service of the Dothraki is certainly something that will matter going forward, but for an episode that doesn't feature any wide-scale action or significant character deaths (sorry Osha, you were out of the picture for a long time), neither D&D nor Daniel Sackheim shirk on their A-game potential.
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