Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Game of Thrones S06E04 review - Book of the Stranger

This was a mostly slow but deliberate episode with strong plot development and finale that literally blew the doors off.
Episode rating: 8/10

This was probably the best episode of season 6, since it contained a coherent, powerful narrative as well as character development and some excellent pyrotechnics. What I like is particularly what this episode had to say about the world GoT inhabits and by extension the world we all inhabit. Firstly, this episode confirmed one of the main themes: unlikely alliances and unlikely leaders. In a world where lineage and possessing a penis seem to be the main determinants of power, that power is held increasingly by unlikely heroes, like a bastard (Jon Snow), women (Yara Greyjoy, Danaerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister and the Sand Snakes ruling the roost in their respective domains) and of course, everybody’s favourite double team, the midget and the eunuch (Tyrion & Varys). Many of the strong, virile men are left to carry out grunt work (e.g. Daario Naharis) or rot in jail (Ser Loras).

[By the way, before you ask, the Stranger is essentially 'Death' in this universe. I'm not sure where the book reference is from, although presumably Death has been kind of enough to distill its wisdom in a tome somewhere...]

Secondly, the art of compromise. Tyrion and Varys have plenty of philosophical discussions around statecraft, but it really hit home this week as Tyrion allowed the slavers phase out the slaving over time rather than overnight, as Danaerys wanted. But Tyrion knows that getting a civilisation to change takes a lot of time and you can’t fix problems overnight. This reflects to some extent the American experience in places like Afghanistan, which has several retrograde laws pertaining to women and social issues like abortion.Trying to replace centuries of experience with something new cannot be done overnight. And so it is with slaving in Essos. Although what I don’t get is…what is the ‘stick’ part of this deal? What if the slavers just keep going? What is to stop them? Does Tyrion have a plan?

Generally, the show has gotten markedly more optimistic – now that the show is free of the books’ shackles, it seems to have I imagine the showrunners may now be telling the story instead of GRR Martin. For a start, two Starks were finally allowed to meet – Jon Snow and Sansa have been re-united in Castle Black. This was a moment many of us had been waiting for, although it was executed in a slightly quotidian manner. Sansa doesn’t mention Theon at all? Since the last time Jon saw her, she’s been married twice and raped by Ramsay Bolton! I suppose the plot just needed her to get over it all and gee on Jon Snow to attack Winterfell, but still, it felt a bit sloppy. Ramsay Bolton’s attack-dog goading of the Starks will surely be the cause of his demise.

And of course it won’t do to ignore the finale: Danaerys using her fire powers to basically assassinate the Dothraki leadership, leaving her again as the Mhysa to a new race. (Game of Thrones continues to be blind to the racial politics of its scenes – Danaerys once again plays the white, blonde liberator to a primarily dark-skinned, less developed peoples). I enjoyed this not because of the pyrotechnics but because it showed Danaerys executing a plan by herself for once – originating the idea and executing it. The brutality of it was particularly striking, although the repeated rape threats probably made it easier to kill them all.

The sum total of this season’s moving of the chess pieces could end with something really interesting but also messy. Let’s list all those grudges and impending showdowns in full:
Jon Snow and his wildlings and Sansa bearing down on the Boltons
Danaerys potentially in control of a huge Dothraki army
Yara and her Greyjoys holding a massive grudge against the Boltons (she and Jon Snow should talk)
Dorne’s Sand Snakes holding a grudge against the Lannisters for Oberyn’s death
Cersei’s impending trial and her plan to use the Tyrell army to gain Margaery and attack the Faith Militant
Lord Baelish and the Arryns coming to Sansa & Jon Snow’s side (although this could be a double-edged sword).

Then you’ve got the storylines currently only simmering with tensions: the Davos / Brienne / Melisandre distrust triangle, Baelish v Royce (won by Baelish for now but I suspect there will be twists and turns) and Arya’s storyline (which is quite inert). I’m excluding Bran’s storyline because it seems to be bringing new information to the table, some of which could be game-changing. The next instalment in the ‘Tower of Joy’ series could be revelatory.
All in all, I’d say it was a very good episode that sets up a lot of good conclusions. It’s high time that GoT gave us some closure.

Top plays
“It belongs to our family and we have to fight for it…if we don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe” (Castle Black)
Once again for GoT, it’s a woman who has all the balls, as Sansa boldly states what should be obvious to anyone not avoiding a conflict: they have to war with the Boltons. Sansa’s comment is as incisive as it is courageous. She obviously suffered more under the Boltons than anyone else, so it’s not purely altruistic. But hey, it’s as good a reason as any so far on this show.
The hanged Snow-murderers have been forgotten, instantly. Does anyone care that Jon has left Eddison in charge? And by the way, what happened to the White Walkers? After we saw them amassing on that coast way up North, they seem to have taken a break. Are they working on their tans (?)

“He admitted it before I executed him…doesn’t mean I forget…or forgive.” (Castle Black)
And with that, Brienne truly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Ser Davos & Melisandre were looking for a plotline to follow and here it is. Oh, how I look forward to shouting matches in small rooms between these three. And eventually somebody will die brutally.

“The time has come to join the fray” (Vale of Arryn)
For my money, one of the more significant developments. Lord Baelish clearly has the upper hand against Yohn Royce. More importantly, he seems willing to help Sansa, with no doubt an eye towards getting into the Starks’ good graces DESPITE helping the Lannisters.

“Give freedom a chance…see if it doesn’t taste as good as what came before” (Meereen)
Tyrion and Varys continue fixing Danaerys’s problems in her absence (she should go away more). Although what’s actually happening is that Tyrion & Varys are making deals with the devil, or slavemasters in this case. Danaerys tried to do too much and inadvertently created a monster, so Tyrion is giving the slavemasters seven (yes, 7) years to make it right. While this fixes the Sons of the Harpy problem, it returns the slave cities to a state of repugnant oppression and violence, which is immediately seized upon by former slaves. You can’t please everybody.
As Tyrion sagely points out, “You don’t need slaves to make money…Westeros hasn’t had slaves for centuries and I grew up richer than any of you”.

Grey Worm & Missandei anxious about the peace with the slavers, but they forget Tyrion comes from a line of masters at political intrigue, along with Varys who is an intelligence agent par excellence. If anyone can forge peace in Meereen, it’s these two. What is Tyrion’s plan for “using it against them”? Anyway, these negotiations would be easier for our Mereenese if they had a dragon or two by their side…

High Sparrow / Kings Landing
The High Sparrow’s misguided, misogynistic and homophobic cult continues to ride roughshod over the rights of the Lannisters & Tyrells (as repugnant as they really are). For all of the High Sparrow’s quiet, greasy reasoning, I don’t see any heterosexual men in chains. Clearly the gods’ justice is very selective.
As the Sparrow says, “I saw what my sins were” – his attempts to get inside the minds of the people of Kings Landing have varying effects; nothing on Margaery (because she’s tough) but Sr Loras is ready to give way.

Cersei is clearly frustrated (“the High Sparrow wants to destroy everything and replace it with what…beggars in the street?!”) and uses the fact that Margaery will do the walk of shame to spur her grandmother into action.
“Oh no…that cannot happen. It will not happen.”
The immense Tyrell army is to be brought into King’s Landing and the Faith Militant quelled. O Civil war! The Sparrows are so vile that for the first time I’m actually spurring the Small Council to win…but this is what Game of Thrones does…it throws unlikely people together and pulls the rug out from under you.

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