Season Six of HBO’s Game of Thrones hadn’t been bad prior to “Book of the Stranger”, but it wasn’t exactly showing off how the series hooked its millions of viewers every week (and infinitely many more pirates), either. The Jon storyline was hardly a waste of time, but it didn’t have the dramatic heft necessary to function as the show’s primary narrative engine. There were some deaths of lesser characters, some shifts of power in less significant areas of Westeros, and some scenes of Ramsay being, well, Ramsay. But it’s not until “Book of the Stranger” that the season finally comes into its own, and the emergence is engaging, captivating and satisfying in a way that the preceding episodes never quite were.
For starters, Sansa’s return to Castle Black provides an emotional interest in Jon’s resurrection the show had been lacking. It was a relief to see Kit Harrington walking upright again, sure, but Tormund’s greeting of a reborn Jon didn’t generate quite the resonance of seeing Ned’s children reunited once again. Sansa’s determination to retake Winterfell also keeps the reunion from being purely a sentimental one, quickly introducing what’s sure to be a major plot point in the season going forth.
The reunion also riffs poignantly on the extended execution of Jon’s betrayers last week, since the sight of a hanged Olly makes Jon hesitant to be as gung-ho as his sister about taking out the Boltons. As hard as it may be to imagine someone not wanting to do away with Ramsay as quickly as possible, Jon’s hesitance is understandable given the anguish the execution undoubtedly causes him, which director Daniel Sackheim (back this week) emphasizes by lingering on the hanging bodies. Jon and Sansa won’t be on their own in attacking Winterfell, though, as Littlefinger makes his first appearance of the season to talk Robyn Arryn into joining the fight to to take down Ramsay.
The past few seasons have provided more than enough motivation for Sansa and co. to finally rid the show of Ramsay’s scourge, but it’s a tribute to “Book of the Stranger” that even his scene doesn’t feel excessive for the first time in a while. His stabbing of Osha is still well within character, but it’s a welcome reprieve from the human dog meals and extended torture of his past. The murder leads to a threatening letter addressed to Jon, and a brewing conflict suddenly becomes an unavoidable showdown looming at a future date.
Equally unavoidable is the dispute between Tyrion and the enslaved people of Meereen, who, understandably, are not as into the idea of waiting for freedom as he is. He trips over Valyrian in trying to explain his rationale, emphasizing his disconnect from the people he purports to help. Tyrion’s hope for negotiation is understandable, but so is the desire for immediate freedom, and the lack of a clear right side in the debate makes it a compelling angle for the show to continue to pursue as the season progresses.
Even the previous most compelling aspect of Season Six — the Lannisters’ determination to reclaim their power — gets better in “Book of the Stranger”. The slow zoom in on the High Sparrow as he describes how he comes to zealotry fleshes him out as a character, even if he’s already beyond hopes of regaining our sympathies. Most promising is the co-resolution between Olenna and the Lannisters to save Margaery from the High Sparrow, which looks to be another promising conflict for the remaining episodes.
Of the most signifcance, though, is the high note on which “Book of the Stranger” concludes: Daenerys’ reclamation of power. Although her scene with the Dothraki begins as yet another barrage of crude jokes, Daenerys bears them knowing that she can get her revenge. And that she does, revealing her capabilities as the Mother of Dragons in one of the most gorgeous and striking sequences on the show in recent memory.
Thus, “Book of the Stranger” sets up several fascinating conflicts for a season which had been sorely lacking in them. The episode provides potential directions for the season’s various plots without being too prescriptive, suggesting where the arcs could go while still leaving open plenty of intriguing possibilities.
And just like that, things are looking up for Season Six.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.