Season 6, Episode 4: Book of the Stranger

Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. I have only read the first three books and I have no knowledge of what transpires in the show moving forward. Any views or content expressed are solely personal theories, opinions and insights.

REUNITED AT LAST

Game of Thrones is a show that is often centered around the struggles and hardships that its characters must endure, perhaps none more prevalent than the struggle of separation and distance. For some characters, it is a physical separation from their family or loved ones; for other characters, it’s a metaphorical separation from their goals, or a distance from what they are trying to achieve. Whatever it may be, there is always a distance which the story’s characters are trying to work against as they try to inch closer to what they want most. And in Book of the Stranger, we saw several characters take giant steps, if not leaps, towards reducing the distance that stands between them and their goals. Most notably, great distances which existed between certain characters were eliminated as several characters were reunited, including Sansa with Jon Snow, Theon with Yara, Khaleesi with Jorah/Daario, and even Baelish with Robin Arryn. And while several of these characters being reunited represented the elimination of a physical distance, it is all the more significant for the implications it has upon the larger goals that are now more attainable with some of the new bonds that have been forged. So look at, because a lot of what had been brewing below the surface is starting to bubble to the top and battle appears to be imminent.

TWO STARKS, ONE ROOM

The idea of a Stark being in the same vicinity as another Stark is an idea that seems foreign. Aren’t the Starks destined to a life of complete isolation from all their family and loved ones? It sure felt that way, and rightfully so — we haven’t seen two Starks together since the second episode of this entire series — that’s right, 53 episodes go! And that’s precisely why the reuniting of Sansa and Jon Snow was quite underwhelming for me. In this Game of Thrones world, there are so many terrible things going on all around us. Every now and then, we get a glimpse of something really positive, something really moving, something really uplifting. And in this world, where the Starks who we loved so very much, have endured years of pain, misery and agony, we could only hope that one day we would see them get back together — a moment that would be so incredibly powerful, that I couldn’t even imagine how good it would make us all feel. But then it happened, and it was just eh.

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Sure, it was great to see Sansa walk through the gates of the Wall and to actually feel for once that she was safe, finally in a place where nobody could hurt her and there was actually somebody there to protect her. And it was really nice to Sansa and Jon Snow embrace in a Stark hug, to feel the warmth and familiarity of holding their own family again. But it was just okay, nothing more, and here’s why. Jon Snow and Sansa were never very close — in fact, they didn’t get along very well. As they mentioned in the episode, Jon Snow thought Sansa was a spoiled brat and Sansa thought Jon Snow didn’t really belong. Jon was much closer with some of his other half-siblings, particularly Arya and Bran; Sansa was much closer with others as well, particularly Robb. So while it was really nice to see two Stark children reunited, it kind of sucked that we got the least emotional version of it, since they really weren’t that close in the first place. And, that this was 53 episodes in the making makes it all the more disappointing. I just wish that after all the turmoil we’ve had to watch the Starks endure, that the reuniting would have been more meaningful, or at least more moving.

On the flip side of the coin, perhaps this is exactly the point of why these two siblings are reunited. Maybe that they were not super close to begin with is all the more important, as we will now see them come together to fight the Boltons and win back the North. All that aside, what I did enjoy most was Sansa’s conviction to take back the North. In her eyes, it was not even a question, not even a thought — it was a responsibility — the North has and always will belong to the Starks, in her eyes. And as Jon Snow tells her that all he has been doing is fighting since he left Winterfell, and is ready to resign altogether, it is Sansa that tells him that she will take back the North with or without him, though she prefers he helps. Perhaps another Stark was the only person that could have broken Jon Snow’s defeatist attitude and refocused him on the mission ahead. Though, Ramsay’s letter certainly did not hurt Sansa’s cause, and Jon Snow now appears ready to fight at least one more battle, after learning that Ramsay has Rickon prisoner. Jon Snow, Sansa, Ser Davos, Lady Melisandre, Tormund Giantsbane, a couple thousand Wildlings, a few Giants — it’s a pretty unlikely band of characters that appear to be coming together to form Jon Snow’s army.

Worth noting, elsewhere at the Wall, Brienne finds herself face to face with Ser Davos and Melisandre, and there are a few interesting reveals. First, Brienne confirms to them (and to us) that she in fact killed Stannis, though we never saw it. She also tells Melisandre that she was there when Renley was killed by shadow magic, and seems to know that Melisandre had some part in it. She makes a point of mentioning that she will not forgive and she will not forget, so it is worth keeping an eye on the dynamic between Brienne and Melisandre. Davos also finds out that Shireen was killed, though Melisandre does not offer up that she was burned alive by her own parents (at the advice of Melisandre). Melisandre again notes that Jon Snow is the Prince That was Promised, though Davos points out she was wrong once before when she claimed the same of Stannis. Melisandre is in a weird, distant place, seemingly having regained some of her faith after bringing Jon Snow back to life, but still unsure in the Lord of Light or her own purpose on this journey.

KHALEESI, THE UNBURNT

We knew that Khaleesi would be just fine and find a way to escape the Dothraki Khals– even cooler, she knew it as well. What I enjoy most about Khaleesi is her utter faith and confidence, even in the face of challenging and life-threatening situations. The problem is that we have not seen enough of this side of Khaleesi — not enough of Khaleesi being a leader, not enough Khaleesi burning down temples and killing all the Khals, not enough Khaleesi walking out of fires unburnt…not enough of Khaleesi being the badass she’s supposed to be. We’ve way too much of Khaleesi sitting in a pyramid, unsure of what to do with the slaves in her city, unsure of what to do with her dragons, unsure about pretty much everything. So it was nice to see the badass Khaleesi return — welcome back. Now, I can only hope that this Khaleesi is here to stay, and that her story won’t follow the same pattern it’s followed for the last five years — fight the battle, free the slaves, slaves embrace Khaleesi, Khaleesi leaves city, freed-slaves become enslaved again, Khaleesi wanders through the desert and encounters some new enemy, Jorah and Daario swoop in to save the day, etc etc… My hope and guess is that Khaleesi’s story will really pick up now, and it is presumed that she now has thousands of Dothraki added to her army.

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Back in Mereen, Tyrion takes a meeting with the slave masters of Astapor and Yunkai, and agrees to give them seven years to phase out slavery, if they’ll agree to stop funding the Sons of the Harpy. Missandei and Grey Worm and not pleased, as seven years is a long time to allow slavery to continue, and certainly not in line with Khaleesi’s previous edicts. But, Tyrion is trying a new way and it’s safe to assume that Khaleesi will initially not be too pleased when she returns to Mereen to find out what he’s done.

THE IRON ISLANDS

Jon Snow and Sansa weren’t the only siblings to be reunited, as Theon finally makes it back home to Pyke and is reunited with his sister, Yara, who is reminiscent of their father, sitting in his rigid wooden chair and staring off into the fire. Yara is still pissed that Theon didn’t come back with her when she attempted to save him from Ramsay, and she shows him some tough love. She assumes he has returned to claim kingship of the Iron Islands now that their father has died, though he confesses that he has no interest in becoming king. Rather, he wants to back Yara and help her to rule the Iron Islands. What it really seems like he wants most is to continue to atone for his sins, and my guess is that he helps Yara become ruler of the Iron Islands in order to do good in the larger war that is to come.

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LITTLEFINGER IS BACK

It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen Baelish and the master manipulator has returned to the Eyrie to continue to use those around him as pawns in his game. Robin Arryn is a bit older and remains Lord of the Vale, which means he still commands a sizable army. As Baelish returns, Lord Royce questions what Baelish has done with Sansa — last they left the Eyrie, Baelish told him he was taking her back home, but ended up in fact marrying her to Ramsay. Baelish doesn’t like Lord Royce’s interrogation, and shows that he in fact is the one in power, as he could easily have Robin execute Lord Royce. But, Lord Royce pledges his absolute loyalty and will live to see another day — but keep an eye on him, as he certainly is onto Baelish. Most important about this scene, Baelish tells Royce to round up the troops, as it’s time to “join the fray.” Baelish is calculated in his every move and has probably planned for this next move for some time now. It will be interesting to see what side Baelish backs, and more importantly, what Baelish’s end-goal really is.

KING’S LANDING

And last, but not least, there’s King’s Landing — perhaps the only storyline that I currently enjoy less than that of Khaleesi. The whole High Sparrow plot just doesn’t do it for me, and I kind of want it to just come to an end. Thankfully, it looks like things might be heading towards a climax, with the Tyrells and Lannisters reaching an alliance. For the sake of freeing Margaery and Loras, as well as eliminating the High Sparrow, Jaime proposes that the Tyrells march their army (the second largest in Westeros) into King’s Landing, while the King’s army will stand down. They propose to do this quickly and quietly without Tommen knowing about it. Seems like it should be easy enough and though the High Sparrow has many followers and people willing to fight and die, it seems like they wouldn’t stand a chance against an actual army. But this is precisely why I think there might be more to it — after all, this whole time, it’s seemed so simple — why hasn’t an actual army just taken out the High Sparrow? Maybe it was simply because all the players in King’s Landing were on different pages and are finally coming together against their common threat. Or, maybe it’s not that simple and there’s more to the High Sparrow’s plan. In any event, things should be coming to a head very shortly (I hope).

NEXT WEEK’S EPISODE

If you don’t watch the scenes from next week specifically because you don’t want to know anything about the next episode, then stop reading now. Every now and then when something particularly interesting grabs by eye from next week’s preview, I choose to include it in my recap. And this past preview showed something that I think could be very interesting. The preview showed a mysterious woman approaching Varys, telling him that there is still much that he does not know. I think this is a woman that we saw all the way  back in the second season — her name is Quaithe, otherwise known as Quaithe of the Shadow, because she comes from the Shadow Lands of Asshai (the same place where Lady Melisandre comes from). We saw her in Qarth in the second season, where she has a mysterious conversation with Jorah, and appears to know many things, including that Jorah had spied on Khaleesi, and also where Khalessi’s dragons are being held (see vide below). Perhaps more significant, she also has an exchange with Khaleesi where she tells Khaleesi that she should visit Asshai as soon as possible, and tells her the mysterious message, “To go north, you must journey south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.”

And just like that, we never saw her again. But in the preview for next week’s episode, we saw a woman unmasked, that appears to be wearing a similar necklace as Quaithe (and Melisandre) wore, and is clearly a red priestess like Melisandre (photo below). It’s possible that this is a completely different character, and very well might be, since their eyes are different colors. But either way, it is worth mentioning, as I think we will see the character Quaithe at some point again, and also because the red priestess below will likely be significant, whether or not she is in fact Quaithe.

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Episode 9 Recap: The Watchers on the Wall

Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. Any views or opinions expressed are based solely on where the Game of Thrones TV series currently is and no other knowledge or information is presented in this article.

THE WATCHERS ON THE WALL

The episode leading up to a season finale is often more significant than the finale itself. Whereas the finale is tasked with the focus of bringing an end to season, the episode prior has the opportunity to still deliver a some poignant messages, before things come to an end in the finale. And in The Watchers on the Wall, the second to last episode of this season, a powerful experience is exactly what we got as we were immersed in the greatest battle scene of Thrones history.  So powerful a battle that it commanded every second of the episode, quickly making most of us forget about the extraordinarily heart-wrenching death of Prince Oberyn from last week. But why was this battle so significant that it needed to consume the entire 50-minute episode?

For starters, battle scenes are extremely rare in the Thrones world. Although battle may always seem present and the prospect of war is always lurking, it is is a very rare occurrence to actually see the battles that go down. In fact, in nearly 40 episodes, we’ve only seen one true battle — the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay, when Stannis nearly sacked King’s Landing. So, when we do see battle, it is a rare, and generally massive experience.

And all the more so when the battle has been building up for such a long period of time. In this case, the progression of the Wildling siege on the Wall has been developing for dozens of episodes — dating all the way back to early last season when Jon Snow infiltrated the Wildlings to learn of their plans. Compared to how immersed we are in other plot-lines, perhaps we felt removed from the build-up of this battle, probably due to the fact that this entire season we have not seen or heard from Mance Rayder or the army he has been uniting.  Yet, episode after episode we were reminded that war was coming as the Wildlings inched closer to the Wall. And tonight, the multi-season development of the Wildling attack on the Wall reached climax and quickly became very real.

But, beyond the rarity of actually seeing a battle scene in this world, and beyond that this battle had been building up for so long, this episode was meaningful for more profound reasons. As with most everything in this world, the significance of this battle was not the battle itself — but rather the ways in which each character was exposed by the battle. Whether revealing men as cowards or providing them a platform to become heroes; whether demonstrating a man’s purpose or taking from them the person they love — this battle provided a lens through which we were able to see deeper into the soles of each character.

IN THE FACE OF DEATH, WHO WILL WE BECOME?

Most of us will never face imminent death. But what if we were faced with the prospect of realizing that death was so likely and so close for us, how would we react? Who would we become? Death is the great revealer and for the brothers of the Night’s Watch who faced imminent death, these were questions they were forced to answer. And, in the face of death, we saw who each man became — we saw the truth of each character. And therein lies the magic of this episode.

Men like Jon Snow proved their heroism and bravery — the prospect of death was unimportant compared to the duty of protecting the Wall. Fear was not an option and Jon took lead from atop the Wall as he shouted out his first commands. And when it was time to join the fight at the bottom of the Wall, we saw just how skilled a warrior he has become, taking down many Wildlings including Styr.

Ser Alliser Thorne was another of the episode’s heroes, proving himself a worthy commander of the Night’s Watch, at least in battle. As unlikable of a character as he has been, perspective is offered in an episode like this and we see the truth of his character; we quickly forget about his unlikability and only care to respect him for his valor in leading the Night’s Watch and courageously fighting back in the face of death. He took the fight to the much larger Tormund Giantsbane, though he sustained a deadly wound before being dragged away.

Grenn was another hero of the episode, serving Jon Snow loyally and obeying his orders to protect the inner gate. Facing down a giant, Grenn quelled the fears of his brothers and kept them united to fight. And though we do not see the fight scene, we learn that Grenn and the others fought valiantly and gave their lives to protect the gate, while also succeeding in killing the giant. In the face of death, when everything else was stripped away, we saw true greatness in the soles of these men.

On the other hand, we saw the ways in which certain characters were completely crippled by the fear that overtook them. Truly believing that death was so close for him, Pip was unable to fight, and as result, he took one of Ygritte’s arrows to the throat before dying in Samwell’s arms. Even worse, Ser Janos Slynt, a man who was once Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, completely deserted the fight and took cover behind a locked door. He abandoned his vows and his brothers, showing the truth of what he was made of.

THE WILDLING ARMY

For nearly two seasons, we have been hearing about the Wildling army that Mance Rayder has assembled. And we finally got to see it, or rather a small portion of it. We see the giants that Mance was able to get to fight for him and the giant mammoths that they ride. To unite over 90 clans of Wildlings to fight together as one united army is something that nobody has ever been able to do before Mance Rayder. We are reminded of the dialogue last season when Jon Snow asked Mance how he did it, to which he responded, “I told them we would all die if we didn’t get south. It’s the truth.” So, while this battle for the Night’s Watch was about fighting back the Wildlings, for the Wildlings, it’s not really about fighting the Night’s Watch, but rather doing what is necessary to get out of the North. That Mance was able to unite all the Wildlings of the North in their quest to march south is an alarming reminder that Winter is Coming and perhaps the threat of imminent death is coming on a much larger scale.

DEFENDING THE WALL

Another layer to the episode that was particularly gripping was getting to actually see the reality of being The Watchers on the Wall — the absolute last hope and line of defense between the Seven Kingdoms and all the threats that lurk north of the Wall. It was amazing to see the intricacies of the top of the Wall — intricacies that were built by Brandon Stark over 8,000 years ago, using the help of giants and the magic of the Children of the Forest. It was equally special to actually witness the way the Night’s Watch defends the Wall, using tactics and strategies that have been practiced for thousands of years. Prior to this episode, we had understood that this Wall was a defense structure and that the Night’s Watch defends the wall, but we had no idea exactly how the Wall was constructed, especially atop, or the way the Night’s Watch actually protects the Wall. We finally got to see the Night’s Watch defend the Wall from the rare position of being 700 feet in the sky.

LOVE IS THE DEATH OF DUTY

Even in an action-packed episode depicting a bloody battle, love finds its way in. Samwell is discovered reading about the Wildlings, fearful of what they have done to Gilly after they raided the brothel in Mole’s Town where she had been staying. Maestar Aemon tells Samwell that “Love is the death of duty,” suggesting that one cannot love a woman and also be dutiful to the Night’s Watch. Maestar Aemon goes on to speak of a girl that he once loved and the vision of her that he still holds on to. As a man who cannot see the world around him, Maestar Aemon tells Samwell that the visual memory of the girl he once loved is in fact more real to him than is Samwell. Maestar Aemon also re-reveals that he is a Targaryen and that he was next in line to be a Targaryen king, yet he passed to become a maestar. Though this had been subtly revealed to viewers already, most were probably unaware that he was a Targaryen. Maestar Aemon was the uncle of the Mad King and is great uncle to Khaleesi, but he is so old and has been so far away at the Wall for so many years that most are completely unaware that he is a living Targaryen. For viewers, previously, it was thought that Khaleesi was the last living Targaryen — it is interesting to consider the potential implications of the reveal that she in fact has a great uncle alive on Westeros.

At that moment, Samwell has chosen love over duty. Or rather, love had chosen him. But perhaps Maestar Aemon’s wise words change this, as he tells Gilly that he must go join the fight after the two reunite. What is most revealing is his reason for joining the battle with the rest. He tells Gilly, “I made a promise to the brothers of the Night’s Watch. I have to keep it because that’s what men do.” In this one line, the entire truth of Samwell’s character is established — he is merely a boy on a quest to become a man. He does not join the fight out of bravery or wanting to defend the Wall. He joins because honoring an oath is what men do. And he is desperately trying becoming a man. Once he has this realization and kisses Gilly, everything has changed for him. He tells Pip that in the moment he killed a White Walker, he had no fear because he was nothing — and when you’re nothing, you have nothing to lose or fear. But now, in this battle he has fear, as he tells Pip, “I am no longer nothing.”

Unlike Samwell who at moments chose love over duty, Jon Snow has chosen duty over love. Sadly, Ygritte has chosen love over duty, and for this love, she gives her life. Despite all her talk of killing Jon Snow, when faced with the opportunity, she was unable to kill the man she loved. And with the kind of irony that can only be found in the Thrones world, we see that the arrow that kills her is shot by Olly, the unlikeliest of people — the young boy who had picked up a weapon on Samwell’s recommendation. And as Jon Snow holds the woman he loves and she takes her last dying breaths, the entire scene makes a powerful shift from a massive battle being fought by hundreds, to the world of just two people. We are brought into Jon’s consciousness as everything around him is faded out and we must watch the sadly beautiful scene of him holding the woman he loves as she dies in his arms, telling him that she wished they just stayed in the cave.

The death of Ygritte is particularly heart-wrenching because of how special the love was between her and Jon Snow, and the opportunity they had to act on their love and leave everything else behind. After meeting her, Jon Snow could have, and should have disappeared to spend the rest of his life with the woman he knew he loved. But, in a world where most people would fight for love, Jon Snow’s nature was to fight for duty over love. Sadly, Ygritte would have abandoned her duty to the Wildlings in a heartbeat to live a life with the man she loved. Though brave and valiant, Jon Snow was naive in the way he believed he needed to honor all the codes and oaths — things that Ygritte viewed as just words. How could these words be more important than love? And it was this naivety that Ygritte was probably referring to all the times she said, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

A DEPLETED NIGHT’S WATCH

In the aftermath of this bloody battle, we see just how undermanned the Night’s Watch truly is, and how unprepared they are to fight back the Wildling army. Once a great and powerful order, at the time of its formation, the Watch is said to have had 10,000 men that manned 19 castles along the Wall. Today, their numbers have dwindled down to less than 100. Though the Wall was built after the Long Night, over the next 8,000 years, the White Walkers never really came. Over time, people began to doubt the true existence of the White Walkers and the danger of their threat. The Long Night became more myth than truth and the Night’s Watch found themselves defending the realm from Wilding raids, rather than a White Walker invasion. The Seven Kingdoms began to forget the true purpose and importance of the Watch and they received less and less support each year from the rest of Westeros. And now, today, the Night’s Watch, with less than 100 men, is tasked with keeping out the Wildling army of over 100,000. Jon Snow tells Samwell that Mance Rayder was merely testing their defenses and that they have no chance at defeating the Wildlings, who will attack again at nightfall. Jon Snow leaves the Wall to seek out Mance Rayder, as he believes this is the only chance of defeating the Wildlings. Before he leaves, he gives his sword, Longclaw, to Samwell for safekeeping.Where he is going, his sword will do him no good, and he wants to protect the family sword given to him by Lord Commander Mormont.With Jon Snow gone and Ser Alliser badly wounded, who will take leadership of the Night’s Watch? And what is even left to lead?