(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
“Book of the Stranger” opens with a surprise Stark reunion and ends with Dany’s surprising power play in Vaes Dothrak – do I really need to say anything else to establish this as the best episode of Game of Thrones this season, if not in years? After seasons of keeping pace with George R.R. Martin’s intermittently-released series, season six has been a direct benefit of the show’s new place in the future of the series, able to break away from the hamster wheel narratives and truly move forward – and like last week’s rejection of long-held Westeros traditions, “Book of the Stranger” delivers its stories with purpose and poignancy, even though it remains as sprawling and ambitious as ever.
“Book of the Stranger” delivers its stories with purpose and poignancy, even while Game of Thrones remains as sprawling and ambitious as ever.
Perhaps the most satisfying development in “Book of the Stranger” is not the Stark reunion itself, but what their reunion ignites: the end of Ramsay Bolton. Long the show’s most frustratingly thin, brutal antagonist, Ramsay’s presence on Game of Thrones has provided nothing but misery (including tonight, when he murders Osha shortly after her return to Winterfell), and his impending departure is heavily foreshadowed in “Strangers”, a turn that should disappoint nobody in the audience. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Ramsay taking over his father’s complicated position as Warden of the North was going to turn out badly, but I could never have dreamed of such a potential comeuppance: the wrath of Sansa coming in the form of Jon and his army of wildlings (that’s right – his army), and the machinations of Littlefinger, sending Robyn Arryn’s best men to go rip apart the Bolton power structure currently residing in Winterfell.
Of course, the slimiest characters often find a way to remain among the living, so it would be wrong to count out Ramsay just yet. But after running around Westeros terrorizing people for years, it seems Ramsay’s taken things a step too far by killing his own father in the eyes of the gods and appears on the cusp of his long-needed comeuppance. In a series with such strong personalities in leadership positions, Ramsay’s blood-and-torture soaked aspirations to power may have been a necessary evil, but certainly not an engaging one – and “Book of the Stranger” turns the tide against his recent fortunes in major, potentially satisfying ways.
Getting back to the Stark reunion, the opening sequence of “Book of the Stranger” is awesome not because it sets a timer for Ramsay’s demise, but in how it delivers the weight of two Stark children coming together for the first time since Ned Stark made his way to the capital (boy, doesn’t that feel like a long time ago), and reflects on the people they’ve become. Jon talks about being the sulking kid in the corner, and Sansa professes her apologies for being such a petulant, stuck-up girl back in her wide-eyed days of dreaming to be Joffrey’s wife (again – it’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other), giving Game of Thrones a moment to remind us all just how far we’ve come, even if it doesn’t seem like much has happened in a while.
That even extends to their political approach: while Jon was ready to fight off the wildlings in seasons past, a fight for his old home just seems small after seeing the undead army and fighting off death – we can’t really blame him for not taking Ramsay’s threatening letter seriously, in that sense. But watching Sansa rip that letter from his hands and force everyone to listen to it makes the threat real to Jon in a way nobody else in Westeros could convey; the power of family, lest we forget, may be the most important supernatural force in Game of Thrones, a connection through blood everyone from Cersei to Reek deals within the course of this hour.
As GoT moves bravely and confidently forward to the future, however, the breaking of the chains of tradition frames the dedication to family in an interesting light. For some like Ramsay or the Greyjob brother who just murdered Balon, it’s just another line in the sand to cross on his way to gaining power – but for others like Sansa and Theon, family isn’t just everything: it’s the only thing they have, in turn making it the only thing worth fighting for. While everyone on Game of Thrones has broken oaths or tradition in the past, those who do so against their own family often wind up the worst – Brienne can say what she wants about the horrible things the Red Lady has done, but in terms of spiritual and symbolic weight in Westeros, the crimes of Ramsay, Theon (let’s not forget, he sold out his sister’s rescue crew, rejecting his own family), and the like are more damning than anyone could imagine.
“Book of the Stranger”, like last week’s episode with tradition, finds great weight in uniting most of its stories under this theme. But even when it strays from the themes of family and pride it explores with its central characters, “Stranger” remains an undeniably enjoyable watch, be it watching Tyrion try to work the politics of Meereen (negotiating with slavers to the dismay of Grey Worm and Missandei) or the episode’s climatic sequence, which sees Dany upending the Dothraki power structure once again by emerging from a fire, this time in front of the entire khalasar, leaving no questions – or challengers – to her power, in what makes for a powerful (if familiar) final image for “Book of the Stranger”. With the freedom of having the written text behind them, the creative team of Game of Thrones is finally flexing some influence on the narrative (and said delivery of story) in the various corners and conflicts of Westeros – and the results, at least through these first four episodes, couldn’t be more encouraging or exciting.
- I didn’t talk much about Theon’s return to the Iron Islands – but this can’t play out well, can it? Throwing down support for Yara might seem like the noble thing for Theon to do, but will that be viewed as powerful support, or the word of a traitorous shell of who the Greyjoy heir once was?
- The shot of Robyn Arryn’s weak arrow landing well short of the target continues the trend of comedic images this season, offering a wonderful balance to the darkness contained in other sequences. But what the hell has Littlefinger been up to?
- Margaery is hanging in there, but Loris losing it – apparently he can’t handle “the truth” (aka a mix of high-minded theologic rhetoric combined with vicious beatings and starvation) like she can.
- It appears we’re heading towards three potential major battles this season: the Lannisters vs. the High Sparrow, Meereen (+ the Dothraki?) vs. the slave owners, and the siege on Winterfell, which could turn into an absolute clusterf*ck if a certain someone takes their dead army to (and through) Castle Black.
- Sansa: “I’ll do it myself if I have to.” Could we imagine a world where she ever says that?
- Brienne lets Davos and Melisandre know that she hasn’t forgotten about Renly’s death, and doesn’t plan to. Even Melisandre looks a little taken aback by her intimidating appearance – who wouldn’t be, though?
- The second sibling reunion – the Tyrell siblings – is much more depressing than the first one we get this week. Yikes.
- Never thought I’d say this, but I hope Cersei shuts up the High Sparrow. He’s a captivating presence, but boy is he an annoyance.
- Game of Thrones is all about the little touches: Pycelle whispering in Tommen’s ear behind Cersei’s back (and walking as slowly as ever), Robyn getting excited over a bird, Ramsay skinning an apple.
- “Time to join the fray.”