‘Recapping the Realm’: A Reunion and Blazing Defeat in ‘Game of Thrones’ ‘Book of the Stranger’
Welcome to “Recapping the Realm, ”where each week ScreenCrush senior editor Erin Whitney is joined by Tyler McCarthy and Kelly Lawler for a SPOILER-filled discussion of the latest Game of Thrones. This week, Erin, Tyler, and Kelly discuss “Book of the Stranger” (full episode review here). Tyler is an Entertainment Writer for International Business Times. You can tweet at him at @TylerMcCarthy. Kelly is an Entertainment Writer and Social Media Editor at USA Today. You can tweet at her at @klawls.
Erin: You guys, I watched a television show last night that made me cry and feel utterly overwhelmed with joy within the first eight minutes. Can you believe this show was called Game of Thrones? I couldn’t. First I want to thank Dan Weiss & David Benioff for not teasing this reunion then depriving us of it. Watching Jon and Sansa embrace and catch up on the horror stories they’ve endured over the past five seasons was a sequence so infused with history and emotion, and no doubt one of my favorite moments of the series. It was so tender and genuinely felt rewarding after all the tragedy and carnage we’ve seen on this show.
But while “Book of the Stranger” opened with a moment that felt long overdue and earned, it also closed with one that felt redundant and uninspired. I may be in the minority here, but was Dany’s ascent from the flames her most underwhelming victory yet? We’ve seen this before, a lot!
Kelly: You’re not wrong about this feeling redundant. It took me a little longer than the show wanted for me to get jazzed by the moment, and to get swept away. But all things considered, I did find it to be majestic and exciting and triumphant. The moment itself was beautifully shot (although did we really need the nudity again), and, in addition to getting Dany some new followers, finally showed Daario exactly who the woman is he’s been sharing a bed with. But more than anything I was so relieved that Dany had finally taken some agency in her story. Her time stalled in Meereen has dragged down the character. She doesn’t belong behind a desk, so to speak. She belongs in the field, actively leading and burning and causing chaos. All that considered, I didn’t end up really minding that she was repeating a magic trick. And you have to admit, it’s a really cool trick.
Tyler: I’m in agreement that it is a cool trick, being fireproof and all, but I’m with Erin in that the scene was too redundant for the amount of triumph it wanted us to feel. The first time she needed the Dothraki to follow her, she burned herself alive and didn’t die and people knelt before her. That happened again because, apparently the Dothraki love a good naked person in fire. In a show where they’re already having trouble figuring out what to do with Dany, it was disappointing to see them not only reach into the “she conquers an army with minimal bloodshed” well again, but to do so in the same way they previously have. We know she won’t die, so how many of these big beautiful scenes where she looks like a god are we supposed to be impressed by?
Now that I’ve retreaded that, it’s time to really talk about the moment in question. I didn’t buy for a second that what Dany did was an effective way to murder some of the fiercest warriors in the world. Those fires could have tipped over on accident when the Dothraki were horsing around (pun intended) and we’re to believe they’d all die? I know the doors were barred, but I can’t believe no one was able to get to her after she tipped the first one and that her only weapon was knocking over the fires. I think the scene needed a line of dialogue where it’s made clear that Jorah and Daario put some accelerant on the floor or something. Maybe these “wine merchants” gift the Dothraki lords with casks that are really filled with stuff that goes boom? Her ability to kill them so easily needed more explanation than a bit of wood on the door.
Is it possible that, in an episode where Tyrion the Realist undoes a lot of the work she’s done in the series thus far, the showrunners felt it important to give her a moment of triumph so that we don’t all start making her take a back seat to her own reign? If so, it didn’t work. I think the bigger thing I took away from this episode is how ineffective she’s been as a ruler thus far. So now she has the Dothraki again, so what? Her ships are still burned and the cities she’s conquered to end slavery still want her dead and still have slavery (for seven years).
Erin: As much as I love to watch a room full of vile misogynists burn by the hands of a powerful woman, and as cool as the effects looked, it all felt very anticlimactic to me. As you say Kelly, it is exciting to see Dany take control, but I can’t help feeling her entire GoT history has been a repetitive series of being undermined then reclaiming her agency. I’ve honestly been bored by her storyline for the past several seasons and out of any character on the show, Dany feels like one epic stall. I’d rather skip out on her for a season Bran-style than watch her continually conquer and seemingly show no growth as a character.
Speaking of pointless repetition, I had a big issue with Osha’s death. We know Ramsay is an evil piece of trash, we know he kills women. We get it. So why bring back Osha for two small scenes only to subject her to his violence? Like your complaints with his Walda kill in episode 2 Kelly, this death also accomplished nothing for me other than furthering our hatred for Ramsay and squeezing in an extra bit of blood and sex. I’d rather she had died off screen before Rickon returned. And now I’m really worried for Rickon.
Kelly: Osha’s death bothered me immensely, for every reason you said, Erin. The fact is that on a show this packed, we do not get to visit every single character every single episode, and this season we have gotten Ramsay four out of four times. The show is clearly positioning the armies around Ramsay into conflict with him: Jon and Sansa from the North and now Littlefinger from the Southeast. Clearly, perhaps around episode 9, there is going to be a large battle and Ramsay is likely to die (I have trouble seeing this show going on to Season 7 with him alive). But until that moment, the show has no idea what to do with him.
There is no way to make a scene (or letter) from a sociopath as disgusting as Ramsay seem casual, the way a scene with Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm talking about drinking games can. The show seems to be handing him people to maim and kill each week so that we can remember he’s there and horrible because there’s nothing else to do until they kill him off. But scene after scene with this despicable human being, all that violence and all those threats just start to become noise. Oh, he wants to spoon Jon Snow’s eyes out and feed his corpse to his dog? Well that’s not nearly as awful as when we had to hear him feed a newborn to his dogs. When Jon and Sansa read the letter from him, it may have been able to inspire fear in the characters in the room, but for the audience it was just another day in the world of the Bastard of Bolton. And the more they cheapen him, the less satisfying his death will be.
Tyler: I think we’re all in some form of agreement on this. It was very jarring to see Osha return just to have her be killed off by a character that’s got enough big moments in his timeline already. So, at the risk of rehashing why the Osha scene didn’t necessarily work, I wanna talk about how I think the letter did work.
First off, let me say that all the threats he made and the language he used was deplorable, obviously. However, I think there’s a drastic difference between showing Ramsay do something sinister and having other characters react to his threats of doing something sinister. The letter had an element of glee to it, with the repetition of “see me,” which made it hit home when you saw the always-calm Jon read it. It felt like a piece of Ramsay evil that was kind of new, all things considered. We know he’s a monster and we know he can think up all manner of unsavory things to do to people, but what made this tough to watch was that we were experiencing it through Jon and Sansa’s eyes.
Additionally, I felt it worked the building blocks of the show perfectly. Not only did it provoke Jon Snow to agree to take on this new quest, but it illustrated that the deck is stacked against him and very explicitly laid out the consequences of failure ... and they’re pretty f—ing grim!
However, more to Kelly’s point, they’re doing all this as a dramatic build up to either kill him off, or make us feel really, really bad about his victory. They’re advertising themselves in a way and it’s starting to get irksome. If I have to wait until episode 9 to see this play out, the chances that the show will be able to meet expectations goes down significantly. Compare that to the moment of triumph and tremendous release of endorphins I’m sure we all felt when this episode opened with Sansa, Brienne, and Pod finally reaching Castle Black, the idea of waiting for what we already know will happen is starting to feel a little artless. I think this season has been really strong because it’s not meandering about with plot lines anymore, with the exception of the two that this episode really hung its hat on (Dany and Ramsay). As a result, I’d say this was overall one of the weaker installments in the season thus far.
Erin: I couldn’t agree more Kelly. The more time the show spends on Ramsay, which takes away from much preferred time spend on other characters, the less satisfying his death will feel. This season has finally given a handful of characters some of their most interesting storylines yet and I much rather spend more time with Margaery, Littlefinger’s scheming and Bran than see Ramsay’s kill of the week.
While this episode had a handful of great moments (shipping Briemund so hard), it does feel like one of the weaker of this season with Dany and also the High Sparrow’s loquacious preaching. I see where the show is going with his manipulation of Tommen and Margaery (thought I’m not so sure she will succumb to them), but those scenes lingered far longer than felt necessary. And with only six episodes left, we still have a lot of territory to cover. Cersei says her trial by combat will happen in a “few days” – gosh time moves slower than you realize on this show – Arya has to do something interesting now that she’s no longer blind and we’re likely (I assume) going to travel back to the Tower of Joy to find out what’s inside. Hopefully the rest of the season expedites Dany’s plot from here into more unforeseen territory and cuts back on Ramsay. Also, is Drogon still taking a nap? Someone wake him up!
Kelly: Wow I really disagree. I actually felt that this was the strongest hour of the season, and even one of the strongest of the series as a whole. Sure, it had problematic moments (I agree, the High Sparrow is as irksome as Ramsay sometimes, and the march towards his inevitable offing feels the same way), but the fact that so many of the major characters seemed to wake up and realize they were allowed to make decisions and influence their own destinies really energized me. I already made my case for Dany, but I also think Jon and Sansa as well as Cersei and Jaime really moved themselves forward.
Maybe it’s the book reader in me, but I feel that being freed from the books this season is the best thing that has ever happened to this show. So much of the novels, and inevitably the show, is about wheel-spinning to keep it going and keep characters from reuniting or reaching any kind of resolution. And it was so refreshing to see this episode have characters just stand up and DO things instead of waiting around for things to happen. Even just Jaime and Cersei realizing that the enemy of their enemy is their friend was so exciting to see. They don’t need to argue alone in the shadows anymore. They can plan and strategize and rule, since they’re so very interested in ruling. I think mostly I responded to the idea that the show can surprise and wow the audience without violence or gore or death. Sure, Dany’s big inferno was plenty violent, but a reunion of siblings and an unlikely alliance made? I was still shocked and entertained. Actually I was a lot more shocked and entertained than when Jon was resurrected or when Ramsay killed his baby brother, to be very honest with you.
Tyler: I think that’s a fair point to be made. Just because the show tends to hang a lantern on its violence and heartbreak by making those the biggest hits of each season, it doesn’t mean it should go unnoticed when it sets up something as sweet and, in a dark way, fun as the Jon and Sansa reunion. I still think that this episode was more of a valley than a peak for the series, but you need those in order to set up grand things - so I’m not complaining too much.
While we’re wrapping up, I want to mention a thought that was sticking out to me throughout this episode. Part of the reason I liked Jon’s story line P.O.B. (Pre-Olly Betrayal), was because he was the only person with his eye on the prize. The White Walkers are this big looming MacGuffin that have been running through the show since literally the first scene of Game of Thrones. Jon was the only one dealing with them directly, but now that’s taken a back seat to more problems of men. Not to say that Ramsay isn’t a huge problem, but when we cut back to King’s Landing and they’re wondering what’s to be done about the feeble old man that’s brought the city officials to their knees, I can’t help but feel like someone should say: “Send the Mountain in to eat the High Sparrow in one bite and then march him and every other able-bodied soldier we have toward the Wall, because it’s going down out there!”
That’s why I’m excited to get back to Bran in the next episode. According to the preview, he’ll give us a better look at what the White Walkers have going on. Hopefully we have time for Jon to defeat Ramsay, Dany to sail west, Arya to master badassdom, and Cersei to get her house in order before it all becomes a big, cold moot point. It’s like my dad always says: “No point in slaying your enemies if you’re just going to have to do it again when they come back as slightly-tougher zombies.”
Erin: Good advice to close on, Tyler (if your dad does actually say that). Until next week!