This is a recap, so, there will be spoilers for the episode ahead!
“Book of the Stranger” feels a lot like watching a gymnast stick a landing after tripping over themselves a dozen times. After last week’s abysmal showing, Game of Thrones made a drastic course correction, killing off dull storylines and pressing forward with speed. The result isn’t perfect. But the show offers new potentialities and promises by the end.
I am skeptical of hype and excessive praise. I fell into that trap early on. So let’s be clear: this isn’t a spectacular episode. However, “Book of the Stranger” is very smart. It understands the importance of character. It takes time for small moments as well as the grand. Game of Thrones is compelling because we care about the people so much. By offering new combinations and interactions, “Book of the Stranger” offsets this season’s major pacing problems by making Westeros (and beyond) feel incredibly rich.
This episode doesn’t waste much time giving us something truly great. Sansa arrives at the Wall with Brienne, meeting with her half brother. It’s somber but also wonderful to watch Jon and Sansa embrace. Both have been isolated from family. Both have dealt with unspeakable pain. Game of Thrones doesn’t offer much solace for the “good guys” but having the two reunite certainly felt damn good. Both Jon and Sansa feel so much older than before. So much wiser than when they left Winterfell. Sansa particularly shines here. Jon may want to fade into obscurity but Sansa pushes him. They must fight for their home and if Jon won’t, Sansa will do it herself.
It’s not just brother and sister reuniting that adds energy to the show. The intermingling of their entourages creates new flavor for the show. I nearly leapt from my seat when Brienne shared screen time with Davos. Having the two most stalwart people in Westeros side by side? Yes. Please. And yet, the show has the sense to remember where these people come from. Brienne doesn’t immediately warm to everyone. How could she? Melisandre is there. She is the architecht of Renly’s demise. The interplay between the three characters is wonderful and even though it is a small moment, it is one of the episode’s best.
Speaking of best, we get the return of Littlefinger. He is best schemer in the show and we’ve been without him far too long. He is both a wild card and utterly predictable. On one hand, he shifts loyalties at the drop of a feather. On the other, he is always looking out for one person: himself. Seeing him return to The Eyrie and manipulate the clueless Lord Arryn into rushing to Sansa’s aid is a pure delight. Welcome back, you piece of shit.
In Mereen, there’s plenty of politicking as well. Tyrion handles himself aptly, even if he takes many liberties. Meeting with the masters of Astapor and Yunkai, he plays to their greed. Slavery won’t end immediately. The cities will be given seven years to phase it out. Not as dramatic as Dany’s “Breaker of Chains” routine but far more pragmatic. It also manages to make his interactions with Grey Worm and Missandei far less boring. Seeing Tyrion’s wily ways bring him into a clash of ideals with his peers makes for far better watching than last weeks waste of characters. This was Tyrion at his best but more importantly, it was a strong showing all around. Mereen has been one of this season’s weak points. It manages to finally “click” in this episode.
I’m less enthused about Jorah and Daario but at least they are making progress. There’s not much interplay here outside of Jorah’s longing for Dany and Daario actually having her affections. The show doesn’t ignore it but it also doesn’t dwell on it. Nor does it dwell on Jorah’s greyscale allfiction. Daario finds out and takes it in pretty good stride, promising his fellow warrior a swift death when the time comes. Dany’s plotline has been weak and watching this section, it occurred to me that a major reason is because of how much she’d been reduced to a princess in a castle for Jorah and Daario to rescue. The two find their queen but she is not ready to leave yet. More on that later.
King’s Landing manages some life by tossing Margaery back into things. Her interaction with the High Sparrow contrasts nicely with any time Tommen’s talked to the old man. Here, we don’t really know who is in control. The High Sparrow is seemingly honest and open about his past. Jonathan Pryce nails everything in this scene, giving a great monologue about finding faith. It is the type of thing that Tommen would fall for but Margaery is craftier. When she is brought before Loras, she tells her brother to keep resisting. She’s damned good at playing the game and I really respect how much she and Sansa brought to this episode with their strong wills.
To make things better, Cersei has learned that Margaery will have to make her walk of atonement but instead of quietly relishing that fact, she leverages it to gain support from Lady Olenna. It seems that the Tyrells and the Lannisters will be joining forces to take on the Faith Militant. King’s Landing has taken a long time to get interesting, but this really shifted things. My only complaint remains the fact that Jaime is caught up with all this cloak and dagger business. There’s a hero in that man. I can’t wait for the day he really gets to show that to everyone.
Rain. That means Greyjoys. Theon’s home but Yara’s not too pleased. In some ways, it’s a reversal of Jon and Sansa’s reunion. What love she might have for her brother is worn by his past betrayals and her own stress over the coming moot to decide who will rule the Iron Islands. It’s a small scene but it keeps that part of Westeros in play. It stands as one of the weaker moments of the episode, but it’s well acted and personal enough that it doesn’t drag things down.
Ramsay’s a bit of a drag though. I’ve been forgiving of his scenes up until now, particularly due to Iwan Rheon’s raw charisma but this felt like too familiar a beat. Osha is brought to him, there’s a knife on the table, and we all expected the sudden and swift violence as he kills her. We’ve seen this song and dance before. We’ve seen this done better before. It’s okay. We get it. Ramsay’s bad. Like, really bad. Dude fed a baby and mom to his dogs. I don’t think we need to be shown how bad he is anymore.
The biggest saving grace in all this is that it gives us a chance to return to Sansa and Jon. I mean, Tormund and Brienne are in a scene together. Even Edd seems like a part of the group. The motley crew up at the Wall feels robust and strong. Learning that Ramsay has Rickon as a hostage only seems to strengthen their resolve. I’m not ready to get too optimistic; it’s entirely possible that the showrunners will have our heroes suffer more misfortune. Rickon’s surely dying a grisly death some time soon. Still, for a moment, things don’t feel so stark. It feels like the heroes might actually rally and win.
That very sense of possibility manages to undercut the show’s final scene. There’s no way that Dany’s in any real danger as she is brought before the Khals. It makes her dramatic, fire filled wrath against them feel a bit less satisfying. She’s badass and it’s great to see her outsmart her enemies but because there was really no danger to start with, it doesn’t feel as sweet as it could. The sacking of Astapor this ain’t.
It’s exciting but much like Ramsay’s beat, we know this one too. Fire, grace, and thousands of kneeling subjects are not new dimensions for the Mother of Dragons. What was meant to be a bold ending feels much softer than it is played. I mean, what has really changed for Daenerys? She now has even more Dothraki at her command but that’s about it. Her time in Vaes Dothrak feels more superfluous than ever.
In general, this season has struggled with pacing. “Book of the Stranger” feels like a great example of this in microcosm. It takes time for intimate character moments and world building but also manages to move very quickly when it comes to main plot matters. In isolation, is a fine episode. But it’s not quite the recovery this season needs to get back on form. Pieces are moving, however. That process can be a pain. At the very least “Book of the Stranger” played with a lot of heart. With luck, it will soon pay off.