Major Game of Thrones spoilers below.
The Stranger is a truly terrifying deity. The other six gods are to be feared, for sure, but at least they can be understood. Not totally – they are gods, after all – but certainly well enough to work out what they want from us. The Warrior wishes we be brave. The Mother desires us to have a family and do right by them. Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we do the gods’ work when it’s obvious to everyone we are doing precisely the opposite, but that is a failure of the map reader, not the map.
What the Stranger wants, though, is unknowable. There’s no way to understand what he wants from us, and so no way to know when we transgress. No way to know how or why he will punish us. That might read as implying the Stranger is a god of chaos and caprice, but that’s not it. It’s not that he lacks rules, it’s just that we can’t know what those rules are. He is human existence’s error term. If John Lennon had been born by the Trident rather than the Mersey he might have said “The Stranger is what happens while you’re making other plans”.
What this can mean in practice is that the approaches that always seems to have worked out for you before can suddenly go horribly wrong without warning. Induction has its limits; one day you can simply meet the wrong stranger. And as the High Sparrow’s backstory this episode proves, sometimes that stranger can be a person – or a type of person – you thought you knew very well indeed.
(Also, just to once more – briefly, I promise! – return to the idea of this season’s episode titles referring to the show’s meta-narrative, let’s not forget that this is a season adapting a book no-one has actually read yet. A book we are a stranger to.)
Sansa Stark arrives at the Wall to find Jon Snow has become a stranger. What she expects will work on him doesn’t. Not as easily as it should, anyway. The sulky outcast spoiling for any fight that would have him is gone. Their brief, almost flirty nostalgia can’t bridge the gap that’s now between them. Doubtless the feeling is reciprocated; Jon seems to have lost confidence to the same extent that Sansa has gained it. We should take some time to consider just how encouraging and overdue that is for her, actually. This is what Lady Stark seemed to be becoming at the end of season four, before the year-long detour into the cheap, the offensive, and the grotesque. Now she’s all focus and resolve; hard as steel, cool as snow. But she’s still Sansa. A stranger to Jon, who after all hasn’t seen her for years, but still recognisable to us. The cynical misogynist nightmare of last year is neither forgivable nor forgettable, obviously. Still, I’m glad the show seems finally to have jumped on the tightrope between the yawning cliche-pits of a domestic abuse survivor collapsing into either quivering uselessness or ice-veined blood-lust. I’m not qualified to talk about whether this is an accurate portrayal of someone who has made it through what Sansa has, but it’s not hard to imagine how it could be much worse.
In any event, it has left her with both more fight and more warmth in her than her half-brother can claim. So she does what once would never have occurred to her, what Jon could never have imagined from the Sansa he once knew. She finds the right lever, and she pulls it. And an army rises against Ramsay from the north.
(Just before we leave the Starks, let’s note that in an episode all about people being utterly changed from what they once were, Arya doesn’t appear. I guess she isn’t as divorced from her past as she wants her new employers to believe.)
Yohn Royce has learned his ward is a stranger. That the only son of the lord he pledged his entire life to will gladly execute him for being the only man in the Venn diagram intersection of “possible source of leak” and “bought Sweetrobin zero falcons”. The boy he has known since Lysa Arryn gave birth will happily cast him aside – cast him out of the Moon Door – in favour of another stranger. Worse, a stranger of a sort Royce was convinced he knew all too well – a grubby man, a moneylender, a whore-monger, a foreigner just three generations back. Precisely the kind of man a pure-blooded Vale lord could spit upon and forget without the slightest consequence. And that always worked. Until it didn’t. And an army rises against Ramsay from the south.
(Royce is too proud a man to live with this arrangement for long. Which, alas, suggests he is too proud a man to live at all for much longer. But I’m not sure Littlefinger has much of a future left either. Smart money says Ramsay Bolton will be dead or at least deposed by season’s end as two armies converge upon him – likely Ramsay will ignore cautious counsel from his bannermen and leave Winterfell to attack one army (Jon’s, probably) only to be hit in the rear by the other. But once that does happen, and Littlefinger and Sansa are once more face to face, it seems highly unlikely Sansa won’t have vengeance on her mind. And Littlefinger might not even see it coming. Not with the blindspot he has for her, the girl he can see as nothing but another chance to seduce her mother. Sansa has become a stranger and he hasn’t even noticed, because he never really bothered knowing who she was to begin with. Sure, so far that has always worked for him. It always will, until it doesn’t.)
It isn’t all going against the Bastard of Bolton, of course. Osha learns that her new captor is a stranger to her. Which of course he is, in the specifics, but in terms of the general personality type of gleeful, violent arsehole, Osha has, as she says, seen worse. Or she thinks she has, at least. Whether Ramsay represents a better class of sadistic killer because he lets his dogs take care of body-disposal-via-ingestion doesn’t seem to matter. This is the one that kills her. And he does it by letting Osha play out exactly the moves she was always going to make. The moves that worked for her last time she was imprisoned by a treacherous killer who had stolen Winterfell.
This time, though, they get her killed. There’s a sick feeling of inevitability that rises as she plants herself on Ramsay’s lap and begins the Wilding mating ritual. We just know this isn’t going to work. Ramsay is not Theon. The old ways aren’t going to cut it anymore. She’d lived alongside Theon, first as fellow guest-cum-prisoner, later as spoils of a horribly unnecessary war. Ramsay is a stranger – one who we at least know will have his own lover screw a prisoner just to make it more fun to geld him. Osha’s plan was just never going to work. The Stranger was always going to punish her.
(All that said, though, Osha managing to avoid getting herself flayed alive was probably the best result she could have hoped for here. I have little confidence Rickon will do so well. There’s just no obvious need for him in the story, and we all know what Beniof and Weiss do with characters they don’t have a use for anymore.)
Since I’ve raised the topic of Theon, let’s take a quick trip to the Iron Islands, where Yara learns her brother has become a stranger to her. He always was, of course, from the moment she met him at the docks below Pyke in season 2. Then he’d changed again when she tried to rescue him, something I’m fully behind her with when she throws it in his face. Hell, it’s not just the weight of dead bodies that makes the punch land, it’s the realisation that Theon could’ve been here two years earlier, and apparently wasn’t mainly so he could be in a terrible plotline that would let him save Sansa from an even more terrible plotline that she didn’t need to be in either. Between this and the slaughtering of the Martells three episodes ago, one starts to get the feeling that this season could end up being subtitled “Gods, what were we even doing last year?”.
Enough of that, though. This is supposed to be about reconciliation. Just as Sansa and Jon have always in some sense been strangers – the show-runners pointed out this week that this episode is the first time Turner and Harrington have been on-screen together – Theon and Yara have talked past each other in every encounter they’ve ever yet had. But Theon has changed one final time, and at last decided what he wants; to live for his sister. Which is a rather nice thing to see in a show set in a world that expects women to live for men, and even when that approach is inverted tends to be because the men secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to bed the women they’re sworn to. A brother simply wanting to help out his sister is welcome for its incongruous sweetness, something we don’t get to see often in Game of Thrones. This is the positive flip of the theme of finding strangers where we expect familiarity – finding common cause with those we thought we never knew. Our reunited Stark siblings represent both sides of this, of course, hence why they get to appear twice in the episode. As does Dany, which suggests she too is playing with multiple themes here.
We’ll get to that, though. For now, we transition from a former prisoner to a current one. In King’s Landing we find another woman who encounters her brother and finds him a stranger. And there’s no happy ending for Margaery and Loras the way there is – or at least is being worked towards – as there is with Sansa and Jon or Yara and Theon. Loras is simply too far gone. It’s genuinely upsetting seeing the swaggering arrogance-storm of season one become a beaten, hopeless man begging for anything that will stop the pain. You can see how much difficulty Margaery is having processing what Loras has become – how she makes the mistake of appealing to a sense of defiance that Loras simply doesn’t have anymore. To a sense of family that no longer exists for him. There’s just the agony, and the idea that one day it might stop. As a picture of someone beaten so much there’s nothing left of them it’s a thousand times more effective than Theon’s plot in season 3. “They did win. Just make it stop. Please.”
Elsewhere in King’s Landing, we get to see Pycelle throw shade at Cersei like she was a stranger, like she was nothing. That’s got to sting more than a little. When you’ve lost a cowardly lick-spittle like Pycelle, you really are in trouble. Perhaps it’s the realisation that not even the sycophants and jittery yellow-bellies will still address her with respect that leads Cersei to a stunning reversal of the tactics she has been relying upon since the very beginning. At long last, she decides to see if she can work with the Tyrells. To reconcile with the people (family, technically) she has intentionally kept as strangers. And yes, obviously, this alliance is only skin deep. Sometimes, at the start, that’s all it has to be.
Take Tyrion, for instance; attempting to forge a peace treaty with the strangers from Astapor and Yunkai over the explicit objections of the strangers who work for him (up to a point, anyway). Always among the show’s very most sympathetic characters (well, almost always, when he isn’t murdering women for deciding for themselves who they want to sleep with), it’s particularly hard not to feel for him here as he negotiates what we might as well call the Meereen Compromise. Which isn’t to say he’s made the right decision. It’s not obvious to me that there’s a less sucky option available, but when you’re a white person writing about the best way to end slavery, you need to be damn careful about labeling anything short of full and immediate emancipation as a regrettable necessity. Certainly I have a problem with Tyrion’s attitude towards Grey Worm and Missandei here, not because his ides is necessarily terrible, but because it doesn’t occur to him to ask them what they would do in his place.
Ultimately, though, I suspect it’s not going to matter. It’s likely the best result Tyrion can hope for is that neither Grey Worm nor Missandei have assassinated him before Daenerys Stormborn shows up with every Dothraki ever and tears the ex-ex-slavers into pieces. After all Tyrion’s efforts to enact compromise, Slaver’s Bay is going to drown in blood.
Speaking of… let’s finally get around to Dany; the queen who once more rescued herself. At first it might seem as though she is the exception in this episode, in that she alone completely understands the people she is dealing with, despite having met almost none of them before. But that gets things backwards. It isn’t Dany who is facing the unknowable stranger, it’s the Khals. It’s a half-dozen iterations of Mandude McManlyman joking about how they’ll rape a small, helpless woman because she wanted to have a say in her own future. Because that’s what Khals do. The Dothraki words for “The Khal sexually assaulted a foreign woman” and “The Khal ate breakfast” might not be the same, but I imagine they are spoken with roughly the same intonation. So sure, internet. Complain about how horribly smug Dany looked in the run up to burning her would-be rapists to death. The last Targaryen took on the role of the Stranger himself in that moment, bringing punishment to exactly the people who needed it. Is it really so surprising that she took pleasure in the application of justice?
Except, there is a point to the objections, isn’t there? And not just on the meta-textual level, though I have no problem with anyone furious about the implications of a white character burning to death multiple people of colour because their cultural mores were not in line with their own. Yes, this is complicated by how utterly satisfying and necessary it is to see rapists get their comeuppance in a television show before they get to sicken us with the deed itself. But when you’re casting non-white people as the racists in the first place, it’s kind of one step forward, two steps back, you know?
Beyond that, though, the problem here is in what it implies for Dany. That bulletproof smirk is entirely too reminiscent of Viserys, and her solution entirely too similar to something Aerys would have dreamed up. The Targaryens have always burned their enemies, and having Dany buy into that tradition should give us no small amount of pause. Sure, her targets this time around would seem to have thoroughly deserved their fates. But that’s how it always starts. Dany should have learned this in Slaver’s Bay; you can start off killing the people who unquestionably deserve killing, but sooner or later you find yourself mired in a morass of moral compromises and uncertain judgment calls. Murder becomes a convenience.
The parallels and references to Dany’s dead brother are everywhere, in fact. What else is the heat-death of the Khals in Vaes Dothrak but an echo of Viserys’ own final moments? Death by impenetrable arrogance might as well have been trademarked by him. Indeed, you could see this as Dany finally avenging her brother. Given how unrelentingly awful he was and how he finally met his end at the hands of her beloved husband, you can understand how thoughts of vengeance must have been ridiculously complicated at the time. But it must feel good to finally set fire to a Khal.
Except… she didn’t actually distinguish between the Khals, did she? One of them announced what was going to happen, and she responded by burning them all to death. Treating them as is they were all the same manner of stranger. Now, I need to be careful here to avoid being sucked into the infinite worthless vortex of #NotAllMen. Daenerys is absolutely not obligated to hold a straw-poll in the room to check exactly who amongst those gathered is pro- or anti-raping her. That said, to kill them all and enjoy killing them all – as oppose to the audience watching fictional rapists burn – represents a vicious streak we should be leery about applauding. That, as I say, is more Viserys than Daenerys. Which means the fact she has effortlessly acquired the horizon-spanning army her brother assumed was his due isn’t necessarily the best of news. Dany absolutely has her reasons for being who she is, but so, as I argued last week, did Viserys, and there was never any question that his acquisition of an army would be anything short of a disaster. And now Viserys’ younger sister has command of the entire Dothraki nation. That’s not something that should make us say “This is fine”. When Khal Drogo promised to take his Khalasaar across the black salt water, the small print utterly horrified Dany. Right now, it seems like she has forgotten that, and that the second coming of Viserys is going to wash away everything in fire and blood. Tyrion can represent the diplomatic approach all he wants, but Dany represents burning vengeance, and she has her finger on the trigger of a gun no-one could hope to properly aim.
But is it inevitable that she will start shooting? As I suggested above, the Last Dragon exists on both sides of the episode. Her first scene here involves her refusing to see the Dosh Khaleen as a single entity standing in opposition to her. She finds common cause with a stranger, one she picked out from a host of other strangers because her need for something else was obvious. A stranger she asks for faith from rather than threatening into silence. These are acts of compassion and mercy a thousand leagues away from Viserys’ self-involvement. Dany can still be Dany. She is not yet a stranger to us. This being Game of Thrones, though, it’s entirely too possible that this will not so much guarantee a bloodless revolution as it will heighten the pathos when everything in Essos goes to hell.
Perhaps not, though. Perhaps Dany can still walk herself back from the brink. And perhaps this, the thinnest of reeds, is all we have to hold on to. What, after all, is more a stranger to this show than hope?
Reviewer: Ric Crossman