Monday, May 16, 2016

Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 4 "The Book of the Stranger" review

George R. R. Martin’s last two books, “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance with Dragons”, have attracted their share of criticism for being overly long and taking meandering and detailed internal monologues and such to new heights. If I hear anyone uttering that critique again, I’ll point to this episode, in which I wanted to shout at the screen “too fast!” all the time. Seldom have the limits of the medium, the tight ten-episode schedule, been so apparent as in this episode, where the story rushes from beat to beat, at times drowning out the emotional highs in the process. This sounds worse than it is, because there were quite a lot of emotional high points in this pretty good episode, so let’s look at them one by one.

At the Wall, Jon still copes with the fallout from his resurrection, trying to “get warm”. It is played more as a savvy line, but his face betrays the sentiment, and we see how hard it has to be for him. That’s welcome, though his predicament is cut short the very instant later: Sansa, Pod and Brienne are riding through the gate, where, for the very first time, a man really falls in love on first sight with Brienne: Tormund, with an eye for a soulmate, as it seems. That promises to be interesting, to say the least. The reunion with Jon and Sansa, therefore, brings this to a first emotional peak, with the two of them hugging and sharing their experiences by the fire. Ah, Game of Thrones, when have you last give us a nice outcome? It feels like ages.

However, here the speed issue hits first. Instantly, Sansa proposes that Jon leads an army against Ramsay. Jon, unsure about his place in life after having dies only moments before, weakly shakes his head once before agreeing. I don’t mind the direction, this has been building for some time after all, but boy, it’s fast. Jon wakes up, kills some dudes, goes to war. His period of uncertainness is incredibly short. Some other issues get resolved just as quick: Brienne matter-of-fact-ly tells Melisandre and Davos that she knows that Melisandre spelled down Renly, and, oh yeah, I totally killed Stannis for it, nice to be speaking to you. It’s at this moment that Davos remembers to ask about Shireen (why hasn’t he done so yet, it’s confusing), but Melisandre doesn’t answer. She doesn’t really seem to know what to do with herself, and her “Jon is Azor Ahai and I’ll serve him” lacks any punch not only for the audience, but also for Davos and herself, so I’ll wager she’s not going to stick around forever. There’s a dragon lady in need for some fiery magic, after all, whereas here in the North, the mood seems set more on icy battles. If that makes any sense.

Later in the episode, the Pink Letter finally arrives. Its meaning has obviously been changed from the books, but it works rather well. Instead of pushing Jon over the edge into open treason, it plays more as a last hurrah of Ramsay’s hubris, reinforcing the decision to get rid of him earlier. While the letter lacks the emotional punch that way – come on, Ramsay calling back an Arya Jon didn’t even have carried more punch than the obviously denied request for Sansa – it works very well of giving everyone, especially Tormund, their “Why We Fight”-moment, so it’s much appreciated and paced rather well here. Sansa also confirms what many have come to expect already: that the northern houses will defect Ramsay’s cause. I’m still not sure about the Umbers – Rickon could be a ploy, but I really hope it’s not because given the events of today’s episode at Winterfell, it would be an extremely stupid ploy – but the Manderlys were mentioned this episode, and way back in season 3 they took pains showing that one of the Manderly sons was present (and killed) at the Red Wedding, so I guess this could be a source of men for a northern civil war. The numbers seemed a bit off, though – 5000 Bolton men pre killing Stannis sounds right, but by now he has at least the Karstarks, and they won’t defect. Even Game of Thrones is not going to give as a child abuser as a good guy to cheer on. So Ramsay’s numbers, even sans the Umbers, should well exceed 5000. Ah, who cares? IT’S ON!

In Winterfell, meanwhile, we get the newest episode in the “Did you know Ramsay was evil?”-department, where he kills Osha, because of course. As I said, if the Umber is really a trap – which I still somehow doubt – it would be the most stupid one ever. This is no way to go for Osha, but at least she went down fighting. Sigh.

In the Vale, meanwhile, Littlefinger is back! He reasserts control rather quickly, continuing the tradition of people doing stupid stuff so Littlefinger looks clever, and with that, the Vale is rouses to war! I guess this should feel like an epic moment, but for me, it rather falls flat, because I’m not invested in Littlefinger and there is no one else to care about in the Vale. Royce? Please. Sweetrobin? On short time. But I guess they will be welcome last-minute reinforcements in a certain battle. I have to admit, what I am rather excited about is Littlefinger reuniting with the character constellation of the North. I hope they break the “stupid dialogue – evil smirk – ally with him”-formula until then.

In King’s Landing, meanwhile, things are also moving, albeit at a more intimate and much better paced speed. The High Sparrow still tries to break Margaery, an attempt at which he seems more successful than he actually is – Margaery has played men for quite some time. In the process, we get a bit of backstory for the High Sparrow that serves to better spell out his rather frightening worldview. This man is a mortal danger to the aristocracy, even more so than his book counterpart. And that fact leads to a very interesting dynamic, as we soon see in the Small Council: it firmly positions Jaime, Cersei, Olenna Tyrell and Kevan on the side of the establishment that’s trying to preserve its privileges. For us as viewers, this means we have the choice between radical fanatics on a crusade or entitled assholes coldly stating that some commoner blood needs to be spilled in order for them to keep what they have. Very good dynamic here, and I’m really excited to see how this will move forward. They also keep alluring to the impending trial of Cersei’s, so things should come to a head in King’s Landing soon. The King’s Landing plot generally has taken on a very good pace now, the frontlines are clear – for the moment – and the characters are interesting. Bring it on!

In Meereen, meanwhile, the pacing problem I alluded to earlier really hits home. What’s happening here is a bit strange: the events from the book – the false peace with Yunkai – are pushed back, and carried out by Tyrion instead of Daenerys. People accusing me of being a book purist will now expect me to ramble on about how this wasn’t translated properly, but that’s not the case. Instead, my argument is that this plotline shouldn’t have been done at all. There is really nothing interesting here. In “A Dance with Dragons”, it works because of the internal conflict that Dany has – the floppy ears and all. Her opponents are cardboards; the strife is internal, not external. In the show it’s external, and come on – Tyrion, Varys, Missandei and Grey Worm against…the Wise Masters of Yunkai? WHO WILL COME OUT ON TOP OF THAT I WONDER? Tyrion has no stakes in this, and so, neither do we.

What we are witnessing is a rehash of season 2’s King’s Landing storyline, down to the self-assured smirk. But back then, Cersei was on the other side and no one knew what the rest was up to. Here, the fronts are clear. And everything is happening so fast! The masters are responsible. Here they are, making an outright stupid treaty because Tyrion is talking like he does. Then, Missandei and Grey Worm buy into it. All in the space of a single scene! Things like that have to grow. This is the first time there’s a payoff for Missandei and Grey worm taking center stage like they did the last seasons, and it is over in 20 seconds because “I’m a soldier, not a politician”? A story like this needs room to breathe, which it hasn’t.

On the other hand, Vaes Dothrak moves into quite the payoff. Daario and Jorah continue to bore me (please, stop it already with the “I fucked Dany and you didn’t, na na na na na ”!), but at least their foray into Vaes Dothrak with their hilarious “wineseller” routine was great. Also, a nice callback to season 1 there! I’m lukewarm on the greyscale-reveal, because show!Daario isn’t really an interesting character, but maybe something will come of it. But Dany and the horselords…man. I know that she does this practically once every season – speech and Dracarys – but they sell this, oh, do they sell it! And she is taking control of the Dothraki herself, and it’s beautifully


  1. It looks like they've structured this season to condense their characters into three main storyline/settings, which is great. Particularly KL and the North, where we have several plot lines and antagonists that have been developed for seasons. KL frenemies vs. High Septon benefits from over a season of development. Wildlings/Jon/TeamSansa/TeamStannis/Jon vs. Boltons + LF into the mix is the same. It's a nice way to get everyone together playing off each other. Say what you will about the Ramsay scenes on their own merits, but they've consistently given him screen time that develops his character, which is important for TV narrative stakes (even if the content is meh and the character is one note). Meereen/Dothraki Sea definitely lacks the same oomph primarily because the antagonist forces are much more muddled. But I suppose the primary concern is Dany Development and Assembling her Forces, with a secondary concern being Tyrion development. Their execution hasn't been great, but the strategic/structuring seems OK. If Arya is going to be on her own, I think she should be progressing a bit faster than this (It does seem like a lot of time/money budget is spent on one character to be moving veeeerryyyy slooowwwllyy), but I'll reserve judgment until I see how she fits back into the puzzle. I think if I was the showrunner, I would have put her and the House of Black and White in Volantis, give her some minor interaction with everyone arriving in Essos (e.g. Tyrion), and have the Faceless Men connected (either aligned or opposed) with some puppetmaster who is against Dany. Obviously it breaks the books (duh), but it allows her setting to serve an additional plot/character development/connection function rather than being a completely isolated resource.

    1. I agree concentrating characters is good. But it doesn't always work. You have a point about Ramsay, though.