Daenerys Targaryen is back, baby.
I’ve talked already about the cyclical feel to season 6 of Game of Thrones’ — characters returning to where they started on taking up the role of the previous generation. But none of it so far compares to Daenery’s mass execution of the Dothraki Khals in last night’s “Book of the Stranger.” It was an explicit, sledgehammer homage to her emergence from Drogo’s pyre at the end of season 1, only this time on a far more massive scale. Even her dialogue recalled Drogo’s promise to her that he would cross the sea to conquer Westeros on her behalf, and implied the time had come for the Dothraki to make good on that commitment.
For several seasons, we’ve watched Daenerys operate from behind layers of bureaucracy — her loyalists, her advisors, her armies, and most recently the governments she’s established. So there’s been a simmering need for a “head clearing” of sorts for Dany’s subplot — a chance for the Mother of Dragons to be forced to rediscover just what internal resources she has that are really her own.
And boy did last night deliver. Daenerys’ gambit at the Vaes Dothrak temple was great strategy: She knew she’d be underestimated walking in there, she knew her one advantage was she can’t be burned, and she knew the one set of tools at her disposal would be the oil lamps. I was worried we were being set up for a damsel-in-distress sequence as Jorah and Dario saved her — but instead the two warriors were simply the last pieces to her plan, locking the doors to the temple to prevent the Khals from escaping.
But that fiery climax also raises a few questions: It would seem Daenerys is not just the Khaleesi of one Dothraki horde now, but of all (or at least most) of them. And she intends to take them to Westeros. Yet for the last few seasons we’ve been watching her struggle to move from conquering to ruling, and it’s fair to say her performance at the latter job has been less than stellar. So does last night mean Dany has finally concluded ruling just isn’t her thing, and conquering is what she was built for?
Time will tell. But if that’s the case, Tyrion sure seems intent on demonstrating that if Daenerys does the conquering, he can do the ruling.
He gave the masters of the other slave cities seven years to wind down the institution of slavery, and in exchange they won’t face another war with Daenerys’ army. Missandei and Grey Worm, former slaves themselves, were none to pleased with Tyrion over this. The argument between the three of them was a bracing moral quandary. And if you saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, there were echoes of that film’s arguments between Lincoln himself and the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. “Slavery is an evil. War is an evil. I can’t end both at once,” Tyrion declared.
It was also a moment that justified the TV-show-as-a-novel approach Game of Thrones has taken: We’ve seen the conditions Missandei and Grey Worm lived in before, and we watched their liberation. So we get at a gut level the sense of moral defilement they must feel seeing their former enslavers bargained with. That they ultimately gave Tyrion their backing — at least in public, and when they could have presumably thrown him under the bus due to his poor command of the Valyrian language — was testament to their loyalty to Daenerys, and how much stock they put by her decision to bring Tyrion into the inner circle.
Their argument was also an interesting commentary on questions of privilege. Missandei and Grey Worm are former slaves, and Tyrion is a prince raised in the lap of luxury, so the initial moral assumption would be that their perspective should be the authoritative one. But Grey Worm’s protests showed his experience also left him with a lack of imagination: He’s only ever seen the slave masters bested by violence and force of arms, so the idea that they can be bested on the institutional and diplomatic front — that you can, as Tyrion said, outmaneuver someone using their own self-interest — is still new to him.
Now let’s talk Sansa and Jon’s reunion.
When Jon declared “my watch has ended” at the conclusion of last week, I was so terrified he would leave Castle Black before Sansa could arrive. So when Sansa, Brienne and Podrick came through the gates, after the earlier scene establishing that Jon was still there, I literally shouted “Oh thank God!” It was another pay off to the long slog: we’ve seen these characters separated for six seasons, and the sheer weight of that time was enough to get me choked up when Jon and Sansa recognized one another from across the yard and then rushed to embrace.
It was also plenty of time for them to grow up and finally get to meet, not as children, but as adults with pain and experience under the belts, but the connection of family still there. Sansa’s reminiscing about how bratty she was as a child, and asking Jon’s forgiveness, should be achingly familiar to anyone who’s made the journey from childhood into adulthood with siblings around to witness all your missteps.
Sansa, it would seem, has now fully come into her own. You could practically hear her mother when she told Jon that “a monster has taken our home and our brother,” and its their job to go and make things right. She was the one to point out that while they only have 2,000 wildlings to Ramsey’s 5,000 soldiers, there are banner men throughout the North who would still be loyal to House Stark. Jon’s hesitancy to recommit to another battle was a moment for Game of Thrones to acknowledge the brutality of its world — you could see how much the wars and the fighting and the death of Ollie in particular weighed on him — but it was also a chance for Sansa to lend her newfound strength to someone who’s strength has finally given out.
A few other tidbits:
It sucked seeing Osha go last night. Natalia Tena is a great actress, and the character of Osha is a great example of gruff loyalty and decency that we got to see too little of. And her plan to knife Ramsey came within a hair’s breadth of working, before her cut her throat first. Seriously, the Bastard of House Bolton needs to die.
I’m still not entirely sure I buy Theon’s decision to leave Sansa. Though I get that he just wasn’t psychologically up to seeing Jon face to face after all he’s done, and with Brienne in the picture Sansa would be well taken care of. But it was cool to see him return home last night, and pledge to do what he could to make sure the Kingsmoot names Yara the next ruler of the Iron Islands.
I’m also kind of over all the scheming in King’s Landing, which has been going on for multiple seasons now. Cersei, Jaime, Tommen and the King’s Council all seem to be stuck in the same storytelling rut. That said, the idea that Margaery is about to face the same humiliation as Cersei, and be paraded naked through the streets of the city, is a potently horrifying one. If anything could convince Lady Olenna to team up with her former rival for power behind the throne, it would be that. And since Cersei herself is determined to reassert the authority of the crown, they both have an incentive to take the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant down by force of arms. This could get interesting. The big question is, will Tommen go along with it, or has the High Sparrow gotten inside his head?
Finally, shit may be about to hit the fan with Davos. It took balls for Brienne to tell both him and Melisandre that she executed Stannis herself. And it was creepy to witness how quickly Melisandre has fallen back into being a supremely confident religious fanatic, now that she’s convinced it’s Jon and not Stannis who is the Prince That Was Promised. But last night’s big reminder was that Davos still doesn’t know Stannis burned his own daughter in a last ditch attempt to curry the Lord of Light’s favor before battle. What happens when he finds out?
Overall, I thought last night’s “Book of the Stranger” hit a solid balance between episode 3’s lethargic feel and episode 2’s headlong rush of events. More than anything, it gave us a sense of how this season will likely unfold: Jon and Sansa are gathering an army to march on Winterfell, Littlefinger is doing the same in the Vale, Yara seems poised to take the Salt Throne, and in the background Dany is gathering the Dothraki horde to conquer Westeros.
A lot of it admittedly feels like things that are happening a bit too quickly, because they really should have been playing out over last season; but instead the show runners had to work their way through the disastrous clutter of George R.R. Martin’s later books.
But all the same, the pieces on the chessboard are moving again.