16th May2016

‘Game of Thrones 6×04: Book of the Stranger’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left?”

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The human desire for catharsis is primal and powerful. Hurt, we want succor and revenge. Slighted, we want justice. ‘Book of the Stranger’ is a complex portrait, sometimes lovely, sometimes gruesome, of what those impulses mean and how they impact our lives. In Sansa’s seething desire to see Ramsay driven from her childhood home, in Missandei and Grey Worm’s jaw-clenching fury at sitting down to treat with slavers, in Yara’s explosive outburst at Theon over his Stockholm Syndrome-fueled foiling of her attempt to save him, we see people driven by old hurts and old fears. They want to scream. They want to kill. They want to see rightness in lives circumscribed by pain and misery.

The path to peace doesn’t look like that. The path to peace is a stomach-churning deal cut with odious men, a maimed and broken sibling embraced, a vendetta set aside unfulfilled. There is precious little satisfaction to it, and less sense that good has been done, and in fact the outcome is still up to fate and the whims of the wicked. The steps toward true reconciliation and coexistence are often shaky, compromised by heavy weights. The outright wrongness of making peace with beasts like the Masters is impossible to look away from, and Tyrion’s protestations that a few weeks as a slave was enough time to educate him on the horrors of the trade is a pale, disingenuous comfort to the people who must swallow the bargain he strikes with the men who used to hold the whips.

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But speaking of catharsis, Jon and Sansa’s reunion at the Wall, a moment six seasons in the making, was enough to make me tear up. Their embrace in the courtyard is tender and desperate, their quiet fireside talk freighted with nostalgia and beautifully lit by the flickering flames. The gentle camaraderie of it can’t last, though. “I’ve fought, and I lost,” Jon tells her, echoing the doomed Ser Alliser, when his half-sister entreats him to rally the Wildlings and retake Winterfell. His death and resurrection, so quietly and deftly handled last week, has broken not only his oath to the Watch but his desire to participate in the endless cycle of violence. “I hanged a boy,” he says bluntly. “A boy younger than Bran.”

Meanwhile, embittered by the long, torturous collapse of her rule in Meereen, Dany commands Jorah and Daario to put their rescue mission on hold while she tries to make some lemonade out of Dothraki lemons. Grand gestures have always come more naturally to Dany than the rigors and miseries of daily rule, and her incineration of the Khals of the Dothraki is another in a long line of bellicose decisions in the guise of world-changing revolution. The truth is that the same glut of horror and violence that drove Jon to abandon his post and his oath has given Dany a taste for using catastrophe as a tool of governance. Faced with the monotony and the eternal two-steps-forward-three-steps-back dance of building a stable kingdom, she abandoned Meereen on the back of a raging dragon. Now she is the dragon in fact as well as in name, torching her enemies and cowing their soldiers into following her. Messianic as ever, she has embraced the terrors Jon would rather shun. The episode’s triumphant moment is, upon reflection, a ghastly look at a woman who has thrown peace and compromise aside, who uses a young woman’s suffering as a balm for her conscience while burning men alive.

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The introspective accompaniment to Dany’s piece of performance art can be found in the bowels of the Great Sept of Baelor where the High Sparrow tells Margaery what brought him to his path of fanaticism. He recounts with self-effacing good humor the tale of his life as a well-to-do cobbler, his pursuit of ever greater wealth and status, and his hungover realization of humanity’s uncleanness in the wake of an orgy he threw for his friends. It’s an affecting yarn, and the point he makes about time infused invisibly into human labor is savagely pointed. “I imagine you’ve worn a year of someone’s life on your back,” he says to Margaery. But for all that he preaches against the nobility and those who emulate them, he reenacts again and again their worst excesses of savagery and disregard for human life.

The episode has the cycle of violence on its mind, and many of its scenes mirror one another or call back to earlier episodes. The profusion of brother/sister reunions, for instance, or Dany’s messianic emergence from the flames as in season 1′s ‘Fire and Blood.’ This is a world unable to escape the hold of its own past, its grudges deeper and more meaningful than its dreams of love and peace. So many ghosts haunt every room. So much suffering hangs behind every conversation. Maybe we should all follow Khal Moro’s philosophy. “Aggo was of my khalasar,” he says of the man Jorah and Daario murder. “He served me well. He got his head bashed in with a rock. Fuck Aggo.” Sometimes it’s better just to let things go.

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