Game of Thrones: Burning Down the Hut

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Book of the Stranger,” the fourth episode of the sixth season.


Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Spencer Kornhaber: Finally, Game of Thrones has delivered its long-awaited hot take on fire safety, stressing the importance of emergency exits and properly anchored braziers. Now, as to the plausibility of Daenerys’s pyrotechnic coup: Would the Dothrakis’ immediate response really be to kneel for the treacherous foreigner who just roasted their leaders? Dunno. But what’s clear is that on the list of times when Daenerys has suddenly and improbably added entire civilizations to her portfolio, tonight’s barbecue ranked in thrill value only behind the torching of Astapor—and this time, she didn’t need dragons.

At least two Quentin Tarantino movies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, come to mind after tonight’s conclusion, both because of the obvious mass-revenge-murder similarities and because of the larger historical-ethical question at play. When dealing with an evil system, are compromises and truces enough? Can peace be had? Or is righteous violence needed? This unusually philosophical episode—the season’s strongest installment so far—pondered these issues throughout, with the final flameout giving Thrones’s unwavering answer.

Fittingly, the hour opened on a weapon, Longclaw. But it was Edd, not the sword’s owner, Jon, who picked it up. Dying, it turns out, transformed Lord Snow into a pacifist, which makes some sense given that all his killing only ended up with him getting killed. The rest of the world can battle; he, at least, can seek some peace for himself.

Except: He still cares about people in this world. Sansa’s arrival was the latest too-conveniently-timed plot turn this season, but the show used this rare Stark reunion for a nice, authentic injection of emotion. Though you could argue Sansa jumped into the role of military mastermind a little quickly, all the work Thrones has done over the years in depicting her evolution is paying off: While her brother has begun to tire of driving the action, she, understandably, is hankering to take the wheel.

Her first argument for why Jon should attack Winterfell was about honor and duty and nostalgia for childhood—mushy motivations that he’s sensibly written off by now. Her second appeal to him was more effective, saying that only through war can there be safety. The charming letter that later arrived from Ramsay backed that idea up. (One miscellaneous gripe about the Wall scenes: Davos just got around to asking about Stannis and Shireen now?)

The second big sibling reunion of the episode came when Theon, sailing on what must have been a speedy ship, arrived home to the unwelcoming glare of Yara. But contrary to her initial expectations, and to the general practice of most Highborn folks in Game of Thrones, he’s not interested in ascending to rule—he’d be happy sitting out the wars to come. Like Jon, he’s lived through too much; also like Jon, family may press him back into the fray, though it’s unclear to me whether battle metaphors will work to describe whatever a “Kingsmoot” is.

In the Vale, Petyr Baelish used the piety of nonviolence as a weapon, manipulating Robin into sparing Lord Royce’s life so as to ensure a loyal fighting force. Though the falcon Littlefinger gave his nephew was cool, the star of that scene was the actor Lino Facioli, who’s grown gangly like Bran in the time since we’ve last seen him and yet has maintained the oblivious/petulant/psychopathic air he’s had since he played a suckling in season one. Robin is an underrated member of the Game of Thrones hall of fame for demented young men, and interestingly, his uncle’s machinations may lead him to meet the reigning champ Ramsay, last seen knifing another underrated and little-seen supporting character (R.I.P. Osha).

In Meereen, it was impossible to miss real-world political parallels as Tyrion negotiated to avert war. The compromise he proposed tests the limits of “pragmatism” or “realpolitik”: The human cost of seven more years of slavery is theoretically incalculable, and yet he went and put a price on it. It shall be fascinating to watch a) whether he’s able to maintain the loyalty of his advisers, especially Missandei, who looked disgusted as Tyrion plied their enemies with prostitutes; b) whether Dany returns to find his machinations palatable, or whether she makes the whole situation moot by sacking the rebellious cities with her new cavalry; and c) how many thinkpieces about Reconstruction, Hillary vs. Bernie, and/or ISIS shall be inspired by this plot line, and whether I will decide to write one of them.

King’s Landing, too, was filled with people trying to find a way out of tough situations without causing a scuffle. Loras wanted to give up resisting the Sparrows; Tommen cautioned against antagonizing them; Cersei and Jaime cooked up a plan for the Lannister forces to stand by as the Tyrell army rescued royals. Did that plan make a lot of sense to everyone else? It didn’t make a lot of sense to me—there seem to be some inconsistent standards surrounding whether and when to respect the king's wishes. In any case, civil war in the capital seems likely to become a reality soon. From a viewer’s perspective, fighting in the streets would be preferable to the stalemate that’s mired what was once the most exciting location in show.

Even the would-be rescuers Jorah and Daario found time for nonviolence debates. First, Daario pooh-poohed the idea of dueling with his elderly frenemy—he’s got nothing to gain by it. Then, that elder knight counseled a plan of weapons-free infiltration of the Dothraki city. Turns out that following Jorah’s course of action likely would have been fatal, but luckily for the both of them Daario turned out to be too attached to his dagger to part with it. It was another example of how in Thrones, for however much people yearn for peace, might usually is right. You don’t bargain with brutal, misogynistic, slaving enemies; you make them ashes.

What did you two think? Maybe it was the heat of the final confrontation, or the warm fuzzies of Starks reunited, or the flush of anticipation about the battle brewing in the North, but this felt to me like the most crackling episode of Thrones all season. Agree or no?

Christopher Orr: Agree with a vengeance. This episode felt as though it moved the plot forward more than the previous three combined—and it did so while engineering an uncommon number of individually excellent scenes. As you both know, I’ve had my concerns about how well David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would push the story forward now that they’ve (mostly) moved beyond George R.R. Martin’s novels. But another couple of episodes as strong as this one would quickly set my fears to rest.

You’re right, Spencer, that Daenerys’s evolution from about-to-be-serially-raped Dothraki plaything to (maybe) about-to-lead-the-Dothraki-nation goddess was a tad hasty. But as you noted two weeks ago, Westeros was until recently a “land of disenchantment,” and it seems that the same could be said for Essos. I’d imagine that seeing Daenerys’s best party trick would earn plenty of quick converts. (Yes, Dany’s dragons are more impressive overall, but being able to command them is less obviously a genuine superpower than emerging unscathed from a raging inferno.)

Regardless, Dany’s phoenix routine was truly awesome—I agree her best scene since she showed the slavers of Astapor just how disobedient a puppy Drogon could be, way back in season three. I’m more than willing to suspend a little disbelief if the payoff is this dramatic. And is it just me, or is this the first time in forever that a path for Dany to return to Westeros has seemed to become closer rather than farther away?

Plus, this was vastly more satisfying than the Jorah-and-Daario-invade-hostile-capital-to-rescue-helpless-damsel storyline we seemed to be building toward. I would cite last season’s awful Jamie-and-Bronn-in-Dorne subplot if I weren’t still trying desperately to repress it. Suffice to say that my fears of a recurring Game of Thrones Hope-Crosby-Road-To… sub-franchise seem to have been misplaced. It was moderately pathetic when Dany pointed out to Jorah and Daario that their non-plan to mindlessly grab and pull her from the city was never going to work. “All we can do is try,” Jorah argued. To which Dany replied, “We can do more than that, and you’re going to help me.” The first half of the sentence was indisputably true, but I’m not sure about the second half. (Did kneeling with the Dothraki hordes constitute “helping”?) It was one of several instances this episode that inverted the customary narrative, with a female character pushing the plot forward while a man (or men) dithered on the sidelines.

The Sansa-Jon reunion provided another example. Following their long-awaited hug, Sansa told Jon, “This is good soup.” (Though—tiny continuity error?—Dolorous Edd later apologized for the lameness of the Night’s Watch’s cuisine: “It’s not what we’re known for.”) But food-quality issues aside, when was the last time that two Stark siblings (or presumed-to-be-Stark-siblings; we still have unfinished flashbacks at the Tower of Joy) actually spoke to one another? Despite a few near misses in the North, it’s been so long that I genuinely can’t recall. You’ve been flashing some encyclopedic chops this season, Lenika. Do you remember?

Regardless, I have to say I was genuinely moved by the reunion, however conveniently timed. Much has been made—and rightly so—of the dramatic fall of House Stark. But the easy-to-forget truth is that of Eddard Stark’s six children (or, again, presumed children), the only one to be killed thus far has been Robb, the ill-fated former King of the North. Given the show’s obscene body count, an overall survival rate of 83 percent would probably be the envy of most of the Houses of Westeros. And if the Sansa-Jon reunion weren’t enough, we have the promise of the two of them leading an army of wildlings against Ramsay in Winterfell. Yes, it will probably turn out badly (requisite Ramsay gripe upcoming), but for now we can dream. And on the very long list of people I’d like to see kill Ramsay—basically every inhabitant of Westeros, Essos, and any continents as yet unrevealed—Tormund rates pretty high. All in all, I found this—narratively speaking—very, very good soup.

Indeed, it was a huge night for sister-brother reunions: As you note, Spencer, Sansa and Jon, and Yara and Theon. But also Margaery and Loras. And in what I can’t help but assume was a deliberate echo, in every case (as with Dany and her boys), it was the woman nudging the man forward: Sansa lighting a fire under Jon’s still-cool-because-it-was-recently-dead ass, and Margaery and Yara trying to to find some reignitable kindling in their otherwise broken brothers.

I also thought that tonight at least began addressing some narrative shortcomings from previous episodes. When Jon declared last week that his watch was ended, the obvious question was What about Hardhome, dummy?—and this week Dolorous Edd asked him exactly that. As you noted, Spencer, we also finally had Ser Davos asking what happened to Stannis, Shireen, et al—possibly the Most Overdue Conversation the show has ever had. And he still didn’t press for a clear answer with regard to the latter. I can’t help but think that he’d be considerably more interested in learning that Melisandre burnt his reading tutor and surrogate daughter to a crisp for nothing than he would be in having her resurrect Jon Snow, whom he’d barely met. But at least tonight suggested that we’ll get there eventually. And while I don’t much like to comment on “scenes from next week,” the fact that Sansa will evidently ask Littlefinger, “Did you know about Ramsay?” may provide some explanation for last season’s most incomprehensible plot twist.

Speaking of which: Littlefinger! How I’ve missed our plotter-in-chief. It’s easy to forget amid such historic shocks as the Ned Beheading and Red and Purple weddings (the last of which was, of course, itself engineered by one Petyr Baelish), but from a narrative perspective the single most important Big Reveal of the show (and novels) is that this entire story was set in motion by Littlefinger. For (literally) years we believed that Jon Arryn, hand of the King Robert Baratheon, was killed by the Lannisters because he was investigating the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the royal heirs. It was only in season four that we learned that Littlefinger had conspired with Lysa Arryn to kill her own husband and thereby set in motion the events that led to Ned Stark’s death, the wars between north and south, and pretty much everything else that has happened in Westeros ever since.

I’m sorry to indulge in such ancient history, but it’s basically impossible to exaggerate how much the world of Game of Thrones is one that Baelish has created. (To borrow the best phrase that Benioff and Weiss have added to Martin’s canon: “Chaos is a ladder.”) It’s good to have him back, even if, for the moment, his schemes are limited to currying favor with Lysa’s feeble (and, yes, moderately psychotic) son, Robin, by buying him a falcon. The idea that he is going to muster the forces of the Vale against Ramsay’s Winterfell is genuinely exciting—Jon and Sansa from the North, Littlefinger from the South!—no matter how many tertiary characters we have to watch Ramsay tediously kill in the interim.

Tyrion had his best moment in a long while—“You don’t need slaves to make money. There haven’t been slaves in Westeros for hundreds of years, and I grew up richer than any of you”—but I was surprised at the utter muteness of his co-plotter Varys. Does the show contractually have to pay Conleth Hill less if he doesn’t speak?

And yes, thank God, things finally seem to be coming unstuck in King’s Landing. The High Sparrow had perhaps his best scene to date, even if his virtual conquest of the capital still doesn’t make a lick of sense. If the Tyrells have an army theoretically capable of defeating the Faith Militant, wouldn’t they have used it when Margaery was first imprisoned? And what about the Lannisters, the Gold Cloaks, the White Cloaks, etc.? In any case, it’s good to see that this subplot seems to be moving forward. (Minor gripe: Has the show this season even mentioned the name of the current Hand of the King, Ser Kevan Lannister, brother of Tywin? It seems a bit much to expect that viewers would remember who he is, let alone that he’s the father of Cersei-boy-toy-turned-religious-zealot Lancel.)

This is the point at which I ought to grouse about yet another tiresome scene involving Ramsay’s sadism. (We really get it! He’s a terrible dude!) Anyone who believed for a moment that Osha would knife him before he knifed her hasn’t been paying attention. (If only …)

But my complaints about Ramsay are at this point so well rehearsed that they hardly bear repeating. So here’s my (obviously implicit) bargain with Benioff and Weiss: Produce 55 minutes as excellent as the ones you did this week, and I’ll stop grumbling about the dull, redundant five minutes of did you know Ramsay’s a psycho? to which you seem to be perpetually addicted.

What did you think, Lenika? Did you like this episode as much as Spencer and I did?

Lenika Cruz: Chris, this was an episode that—in addition to serving up a long-awaited Stark reunion, a Littlefinger return, and a Dany “Dracarys” encore (sans Drogon)—inspired a new cadre of Game of Thrones shippers by delivering two meaty scenes of Tormund Giantsbane looking bewitched by Brienne. Which is a long way of saying: Yes! I liked this episode a lot. Happy moments aside, “Book of the Stranger” also offered the clearest picture yet of the show’s narrative chessboard: The North is preparing for a Winterfell battle pitting Ramsay and his allies against Sansa, Jon, the knights of the Vale, the wildlings, and the Night’s Watch. Dany is set for a return to Meereen with the entire Dothraki civilization at her back, and King’s Landing will see a clash between the rulers in the Red Keep, the High Sparrow and his ilk, and, possibly, the Dornish usurpers.

To answer your other question, the last time I can recall two Stark siblings actually speaking to one another was probably in late season three, when Rickon and Osha left Bran, Jojen, Meera, and Hodor to head south. (Incidentally, this was the “Rains of Castamere” episode, where poor Arya got to see her brother Robb from afar, post-Red Wedding). I’m glad you both brought up the recurring theme of sibling reunions, all of which notably featured the sisters as voices of resilience and fury. Littlefinger’s gift to the still-creepy Robin Arryn functioned as a nice little bit of symbolism on this note: Besides being fearsome winged predators, gyrfalcons, like other falcons, are also notable for the way their females are larger than males.

“Book of the Stranger” went out of its way to highlight women demonstrating outsize strength over men, often with men falling in line to help them. In the Iron Islands, Yara had reasonable suspicions about her brother’s motivations for returning to Pyke. After all, the last time Theon returned home, he was a petty and unbearable misogynist, eager to prove his worth, though he had none. But he gave his sister the only answer he could: “You should rule the Iron Islands. Let me help you.” It’s an unfortunate but telling fact that only now, with crucial body parts removed, is he able to recognize her competence as a leader.

Up at Castle Black, Sansa listened patiently to Jon bemoaning how he’s tired of fighting and losing, because that’s all he’s done since leaving Winterfell. Sansa could’ve responded with her own laundry list of suffering (several threats of sexual assault, actual sexual assault, witnessing her father’s beheading, being brutalized by a husband and her betrothed, nearly being murdered by her aunt), but she didn’t. “I want you to help me,” she told Jon of her plan to retake Winterfell, unmoved by his excuses. “But I’ll do it myself if I have to.” Her words could have rang hollow, but it wouldn’t have been the first time a woman without an army set out to reclaim what’s hers.

Meanwhile, Jorah and Daario’s chivalric ambitions notwithstanding, the pair’s damsel-in-distress rescue mission ended with them being only marginally useful to Dany’s epic plan. The Mother of Dragons, bereft of her dragons, drew upon the next best skillset buried in her long line of titles: The Unburnt. As if channeling her inner falcon, she told the assembly of khals with a measured voice that didn’t quite rise to the passion of disdain: “Do you know what I think? You are small men.” And with that, she chose not to break the wheel of the Dothraki patriarchy, but to simply burn it down—and emerge naked and unscathed. Much like the High Sparrow’s story about coming to the Faith of the Seven, the rot and sin had fallen away, leaving the Dothraki only perfect clarity: Here was a khaleesi to unite them all.

Certainly, Danaerys’s final moment of triumph—having all of Vaes Dothrak fall to their knees before her (Mulan-style!)—echoes the uncomfortable white-savior undertones of season three’s “Mhysa.” But my optimistic reading of this scene is that it’s an affirmation of the way many of Game of Thrones’s female characters (Sansa, Brienne, Yara) have managed to remain more than whole in a world that still skews toward viewing them as objects. You could see Sansa and Danaerys’s utter coolness in the face of rape threats as the ultimate declaration of their superhuman spirit—a potentially fraught way of framing the experiences of those who have been sexually assaulted, as Parul Sehgal explained in The New York Times. And yet, I’ll be the first to say that I’m just happy for the perpetual victimhood of Sansa Stark to be over. Yes, we’ll have to sit through still more gang-rape threats and the humiliation and deaths of characters like Osha—such unnecessary horrors are baked into Game of Thrones’s DNA by now. But “Book of the Stranger” went a long way toward amending some of the cruel (often gendered) injustices of the past without erasing them entirely; that alone made it the standout hour of the season.