In “Book of the Stranger,” brothers and sisters are united across Westeros, all of them changed in some profound way by what has happened in the absence of one another. Sansa reunites with Jon at Castle Black, Yara with Theon on the Iron Islands, and Margaery with Loras in the cells of the Great Sept. Times have changed so completely since the beginning of the series; when once it was the brothers who were on top, it is now the sisters who are the strongest of the pair. Up until recently, Jon was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The last time Theon returned to the Iron Islands after a long absence, he rode in cockily telling everyone he saw he was the only living son and heir of Balon Greyjoy, and even tried to seduce his own sister (before realizing it was her). Loras was once one of the greatest knights in the land, charming everyone with his manner and delighting people with his prowess in tournaments.
Over time, and for different circumstances, the brothers have all surrendered the fight. Meanwhile, in “Book of the Stranger,” their sisters continue playing the game. Sansa begs Jon to help her reclaim Winterfell, though he’s broken by the fact that he was murdered by his own brothers for doing what he thought was right. “I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself if I have to,” she says. This time around, Theon returns to the Iron Islands to surrender his claim to his father’s throne so that his sister might rule instead. Loras, a knight so rarely beaten, lies defeated in his cell as Margaery urges him to stay strong and survive as the future of the Tyrell house.
The title of the episode, “Book of the Stranger,” is named after one of the key books in the religious text, The Seven-Pointed Star. In her discussion with the High Sparrow, Margaery realizes that the man is quoting from the holy book and finishes the verse from memory: “And one day you walked through a graveyard and realized it was all for nothing and set out on the path of righteousness.” The brothers Jon, Theon, and Loras have all walked through that graveyard and are ready to surrender. It’s up to the women in their lives to help them regain their sense of purpose.
In the cells of the Great Sept, the High Sparrow is still trying to break Margaery Tyrell, who only wants to see her family and the king. The High Sparrow says that her attachments are only a gateway to selfishness, money, power, and sin. He reveals his background, telling the queen about his point of conversion (while appropriating some details from the holy book, as Margaery astutely points out). Unfazed, he continues with his story: once, at a party, he had just a little too much wine and women. That led him to take up the Faith and set him on a path to wage his homophobic and misogynistic war of ideals against the upper classes.
He decides to let Margaery visit her brother, Loras Tyrell, who has been arrested for his homosexuality. When she is brought to his cell, she finds him broken. She pleads with him to stay strong and fight, telling him that he is the future of their house. However, Loras only wants the imprisonment to stop and begs his sister to help him. “They want me to help tear you down,” she says. Margaery sees that the High Sparrow let her visit with Loras in order to try to break them both, but she is too strong to fall for it, and begs her brother to resist. It is clearer now more than ever that Margaery, not Loras, is the future of their house. Even in prison, she’s still playing the game, refusing to let the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant “win.”
In the Red Keep, when Cersei comes upon her son, the king, she finds him being counseled by Grand Maester Pycelle. She overhears him advising Tommen to appease the High Sparrow and his fanatic followers. Cersei demands that Pycelle leave and takes over with Tommen, who parrots the Grand Maester’s words. Like a lost lamb, he is easily turned this way and that by whomever happens to have his ear in that moment. Cersei convinces him that the High Sparrow disrespects the throne and gets Tommen to admit that the Faith intend to have Margaery complete the walk of atonement. (Or at least, that’s what Cersei claims is Tommen’s secret… We never actually hear him tell it, and Cersei could be lying. More on that below.)
With this knowledge, Cersei and Jaime once again crash the Small Council meeting between the Hand of the King, Kevan Lannister, and Margaery’s grandmother, Lady Olenna Tyrell. This time, the council members are unable to deny access to the two siblings, armed as they are with the news of Margaery’s walk of atonement. Lady Olenna refuses to let her granddaughter go through such a public humiliation.
Jaime and Cersei propose an alternative: the Tyrell army should invade the Great Sept in order to rescue Margaery and Loras and bring them back into the protection of the Red Keep. No Lannister or Baratheon forces will participate; this way, the crown is not implicated in the attack, since the adults are all colluding without Tommen’s express permission. Kevan remarks that it may lead to a civil war, but Lady Olenna insists, “Many will die no matter what we do. Better them than us.” By this point, this should be every house’s motto.
Kevan Lannister is at first reluctant to agree to Cersei and Jaime’s plan, wary as always about their attempts to regain power in King’s Landing. However, Cersei is able to convince him by appealing to his hatred of the Faith Militant for their influence on his sole heir, Lancel Lannister. In the end, he agrees to let the Tyrells invade the Great Sept and attack the occupying radicals.
Cersei’s motivations always begin and end with her fierce emotional drive to protect her young. It is interesting that she uses this familiar strategy to appeal to Kevan and Lady Olenna’s love for their children, getting them to commit someone else’s troops to fight her battle before the High Sparrow gains any more power and influence over her son, and before she is forced to stand trial.
In Season 2, Varys posed a riddle to Tyrion: “Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sell-sword. Each great man bids the sell-sword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies? …Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.”
This resembles the current status of King’s Landing, with Tommen and the Lannisters representing the king, the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant the priest, and the Tyrells the rich man. Where do men believe the power resides among the three of them? I think the Lannisters are in the weakest position of the three. While the High Sparrow claims sway over the common man, Margaery was also very popular with the commoners. I think her walk of atonement would look very different from Cersei’s. It will be interesting to see how the people receive news of the Tyrell army invading the Great Sept.
Complicating things even further is the possibility that Cersei is lying about Tommen’s secret. Maybe he didn’t tell her that Margaery is to do the walk of atonement. He may have told her a much worse secret. Remember, the Tyrells were involved in Joffrey’s murder. What if Loras, who has clearly been broken, spilled the beans about the assassination? What if Tommen shared that news with his mother? Before he confesses the secret, he does worry aloud that Cersei already doesn’t like Margaery. If this is the case, Cersei inviting the Tyrells to attack the Faith Militant could be a part of some more dastardly plan.
After several seasons of missed connections, two Starks are finally reunited at the Wall when Sansa marches through the doors of Castle Black. In their first on-screen interaction, Sansa and Jon Snow look at each other, a bit unsure, until Sansa rushes forward into his embrace.
Before everything that happened, back at Winterfell, it is implied that Sansa had no warmth for Jon; ever her mother’s daughter, Sansa probably aped her mother’s coldness and disapproval for Jon, Ned’s (supposed) bastard. Sansa apologizes to Jon (and the audience) for how awful she once was, begging for his (and our) forgiveness. I’ve always been a fan of Sansa, but it was not until this episode that she truly achieved the potential of which I always believed she was capable. If Jon had to “kill the boy and let the man be born” (according to Maester Aemon’s prophecy), then Sansa had to kill the snobbish girl to let the woman grow.
Sansa is no longer the girl who refused to stand up to Joffrey and protect her sister, no longer the girl who was easily persuaded by Cersei to write to Robb telling him to bend the knee. Now a noblewoman and champion of her lost house, Sansa begs Jon to help her reclaim Winterfell. He says that he’s done fighting, that he’s killed too many men and boys. She has an answer for his every excuse, including when he claims to have no army. She rightly calculates that the wildlings not only owe him their lives, but also are at great risk with the Boltons ruling the North (as would later prove true in Ramsay’s threatening letter). “I fought and I lost,” he says, surrendering his fight.
Meanwhile, Davos Seaworth and Melisandre discuss what the priestess will do next, now that Jon Snow is leaving Castle Black. Melisandre says that she will follow Jon Snow, as she believes him to be the Prince that was Promised. This title was once held by Stannis. Davos asks about Stannis and his daughter, Shireen, whom Melisandre killed in a misguided sacrifice to the gods. When confronted by Davos, she avoids the topic. Brienne approaches them and warns Melisandre that she will not forgive or forget the shadow magic that killed Renly Baratheon, her original lord and master. She reveals to them that she executed Stannis for this fratricide when he admitted using blood magic to kill Renly.
Jon continues to hold out against Sansa’s pleas for help until a letter from Ramsay Bolton forces his hand. In it, Ramsay demands Sansa’s return and berates Jon for making peace with the wildlings. He threatens the wildlings, Rickon, and Sansa, and signs the note “Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North,” leading Sansa to deduce (correctly) that Ramsay killed his father for the position. She estimates that Ramsay has 5,000 men to their 2,000 wildling fighters, but insists that they try to retake Winterfell in order to save Rickon and restore Stark power in the North.
Sansa believes that the North will unite behind Jon as the son of Ned Stark, whom she calls the “true Warden of the North”: a magnanimous gesture towards her bastard-born older brother. Bran is more likely the true heir to Winterfell, but she submits to Jon’s leadership, hoping to convince him to help her. She needs Jon and his wildling army, so she uses just the right mix of strength, fearlessness, and deference to ultimately persuade him that his cause is her own.
All of Sansa’s experiences have led her to this moment of true leadership. Though the signs have been easy to ignore, over the years she has learned how to be a ruler worthy of the great halls of Winterfell. She has been seen as a victim for so long, whether among Joffrey and the Lannisters in King’s Landing, or Ramsay and the Boltons in Winterfell. While the audience grew tired of seeing her do nothing to save herself, she was learning all the same. Finally, with a little help from Theon Greyjoy (of all people), she has achieved full agency over her life, ready to fight for the cause of her family. “Lady Stark, you may survive us yet,” Tyrion once said to her, more prescient than most.
One of the smallest moments of the episode is also one of the most revealing of her transformation. When Dolorous Edd apologizes for Castle Black’s food, which looks truly awful, Sansa replies kindly, “That’s alright. There are more important things.” This is a far cry from the uptight girl who loved feasts, finery, and Joffrey Baratheon. Hopefully, with Jon and Brienne’s help, she can rescue her brother and retake the North.
For now, Jon has forgotten the undead army north of the Wall and has turned his attention south. Hopefully, in retaking Winterfell and uniting the North under their banners, he will muster an army willing and worthy to defend the realm against the mystical invaders. After all, they’ll need all the help they can get.
In Vaes Dothrak, Daario Naharis and Jorah Mormont try to rescue Daenerys, but she refuses their foolhardy plan. Instead, she proposes an alternative…
During the khalar vazhven, the meeting of the khals, they argue over what Daenerys’s fate will be after she refused to join the widows at the dosh khaleen upon Khal Drogo’s death. Some think she should become one of the widows, while others argue that she should be ransomed to the Wise Masters (slave traders) of Yunkai. Daenerys suggests another: she should rule the Dothraki, since they are too weak to rule themselves. At first, they laugh and make threats, claiming that they would never serve a foreign woman. She insists that they won’t be serving her at all—they’ll be dead. Impervious to the pain of touching the great metal braziers, she knocks each of them over and sets the temple on fire. When the khals try to escape, they find the temple door barred.
When everyone in Vaes Dothrak moves toward the fire in confusion, they see Daenerys emerge from the flames completely unscathed, just as she emerged from Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre with her three hatched dragons in Season 1. Impressed by the sight, they all bow down to her, their khaleesi— the Unburnt—wordlessly pledging themselves and their horses to her command. She now has the cavalry she needs to help mount her invasion of Westeros.
With this, Daenerys moves one step closer to fulfilling the Dothraki prophecy of the Stallion Who Mounts the World. The Dothraki believe that the Stallion will be the “khal of khals, and all the people of the world will be his herd.” Originally, it was thought that Daenerys’s unborn son would be the Stallion, but now it is the Mother of Dragons herself who is the khal of khals.
At long last she reminds us of Daenerys the conqueror—the same woman who declared, “I am Daenerys Stormborn of the blood of old Valyria and I will take what is mine! With fire and blood, I will take it!” This is, ultimately, the best version of Daenerys, the version that inspires both love and fear among the many who would follow her. It is much less fun to watch her attempts at maintaining power than it is to watch her steal it; in truth, she’s not very good at ruling.
“I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel,” she told Tyrion last season, and the distinction is important. She is much better at crushing her opposition than negotiating for peace. It’s been downright painful to watch her withering rule in Slaver’s Bay, so this week’s episode was a welcome reminder to us all of the awesome power and inspiration of the Mother of Dragons. Like the Dothraki, we bow down once more to the Daenerys storyline, hoping at long last that she can take her forces west to the Seven Kingdoms.
Daenerys is a conqueror, an inspiring leader and idealist, but a poor politician. Luckily, she now has people within her Small Council to help her maintain rule once she takes it. Tyrion and Varys are willing to make the hard, political decisions that Daenerys, idealist and activist that she is, appears to be incapable of making. If she ever takes the Iron Throne, she will need men like two of them to help her keep it. “I represent the diplomatic approach,” Tyrion tells Grey Worm.
In a clear demonstration of his value to the dragon queen, Tyrion invites leaders from Slaver’s Bay to engage in realpolitik. “There have always been those with wealth and power and those with nothing. That is the way of the world, I’m not here to change the way of the world… You don’t need slaves to make money.” He offers the masters a deal: stop supporting the Sons of the Harpy insurgency in Meereen, and they can keep their slaves for seven more years. Then, he tells them to “give freedom a chance” while offering them wine and whores. This is a far cry from the smash and grab attempts by Daenerys and her forces to end slavery throughout the region, but Tyrion understands better than anyone that concessions must be made in order to accomplish anything.
The former slaves, Missandei and Grey Worm, are horrified by his words and his actions. “Seven years is not a short time for a slave,” Missandei tells him. Tyrion stays strong, assuring them that he cannot solve the world’s problems in a day, but he can negotiate terms to move the world in the right direction. In order to do that, there needs to be some concessions made. “We make peace with our enemies, not our friends,” Tyrion says, quoting a “clever man.” (The “clever man” Tyrion might have heard this from could be Littlefinger, who said as much to Ned Stark in Season 1.)
Like Tyrion and Varys, Littlefinger is also an adept politician and strategist, though we’ve seen little of him as of late. We find him in the Vale, one of the few areas of Westeros that has remained neutral throughout the War of the Five Kings and its aftermath. He meets with his stepson Robin Arryn and Lord Yohn Royce, one of the lords helping to rule the Vale in the name of the juvenile and incompetent Lord Robin.
Littlefinger accuses Lord Royce of giving the Boltons information about the movements of his traveling party. Petyr Baelish uses it to demonstrate his power over young Robin, who considers punishing Lord Royce until Littlefinger deftly dissuades him of it. “I think he deserves one more chance, what do you say?” He lies about the Boltons ambushing his party and capturing Sansa, then makes Robin think it was his own bright idea to march his troops north to assist her. “Gather the knights of the Vale. The time has come to join the fray.”
Why Littlefinger has decided to help Sansa now, or why he decided to marry her off to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton in the first place, is still beyond me. This once-great strategist has lost some stature in my estimation after Sansa’s seemingly pointless marriage to Ramsay. Why marry her off only to lead the Arryn troops to her aid after her escape? Perhaps he meant to “rescue” her all along, hoping to take Winterfell for himself using the troops he controls from the Vale, adding “Warden of the North” to his growing list of earned, not inherited, titles.
There is some speculation about the true author of the letter from Ramsay to Jon at Castle Black, and some believe it to be Littlefinger. Could he be goading Jon into a potentially foolhardy attack so that Littlefinger is able to swoop in and save the day? Ramsay’s letter implores Jon to “come and see” three times– the exact quote that Littlefinger says to Robin in order to get him to “come and see” his gift in this same episode. I’m not convinced, though it is odd the letter does not mention Theon/Reek at all; Ramsay would not know that Theon had left Sansa, and Littlefinger would not know that he was ever with her.
Theon Greyjoy returns home to Pyke for the second time in so many years, but this time his arrival looks so much different. Instead of the cocky heir who rode into town ready to join his father and betray his longtime friend, Robb Stark, Theon comes home beaten and broken– both mentally and physically. Yara, his sister, is understandably upset with him for betraying her when she tried to rescue him from Ramsay in Season 4. Back then, he refused to go with her, biting her hand to make her go away. She ended up losing many of her men in the attempt, while Theon was rewarded by Ramsay for his loyalty (with a bath). Moreover, she is skeptical of his timing, knowing that his presence jeopardizes her claim to the throne. However, he surrenders his own claim, insisting that he only wants to help her rule the Iron Islands.
In the North, Ramsay invites his newest hostage, Osha, to meet with him. Osha stayed surprisingly loyal to the Starks until the end, despite the fact that she was once a wildling caught and forced into service for trying to steal Bran Stark’s horse. She helped Bran understand many of his strange dreams and comforted the Stark boys when their family friend and Master-at-Arms, Ser Rodrik, was executed by Theon. Most importantly, she helped Bran and Rickon escape Theon’s occupation of Winterfell by seducing the young Greyjoy.
She uses the same strategy on Ramsay, hoping to distract him enough to reach the knife lying nearby. Though at first Ramsay seems to be seduced, he later reveals that Theon told him how Osha and the Stark boys had managed to escape Winterfell—by her seduction—and shoves a second knife into her neck.
There are endless amounts of upsetting deaths on Game of Thrones, but among my watch group, Osha ranks up there with one of the most shocked reactions. Though a secondary character, Osha had done a lot of selfless good for the young Starks in her charge, despite her nature and best interests. She was one of the rare forces of good in this dark world; it would have been nice for her to be the one to put Ramsay down. When he finally goes, I’m hosting a party, and you’re all invited.
Other thoughts on “Book of the Stranger”:
- Tormund and Brienne FOREVER.
- “Two of the most important characters on the show and they’d never been together on camera,” one of the showrunners said of Sansa and Jon. And yet, their meeting was one of the most touching moments of the entire series. After all that has happened, it was so great to see at least two of the Stark kids together again, at long last. In my ideal ending for this series, all of the Stark kids are reunited. What is yours?
- Why would the High Sparrow confide in Tommen, knowing how weak he is and how much he needs his mother’s approval? Surely leaking the fact that Margaery is going to do the walk of atonement was a calculated move—but to what end? And that’s only if that is the real secret that the High Sparrow shared. This is going to be a disaster, one way or another.
- It is my understanding that, according to George R.R. Martin’s history of the Targaryens, they are not immune to fire. When Daenerys emerges with the dragons hatched from their eggs, it is because of magic, not some special ability. I don’t know if the show has altered this for effect, or if there is some greater magic going on here. Clearly, if so, the magic also preserves her amazing hair from the flames, but never her clothing… 😛
- Osha was one of the characters that was changed and expanded upon in the TV show compared to the books. George R.R. Martin has said that her character in the show is one of the few characters he prefers in the TV version over his own.
- One of my favorite book quotes from Sansa, which I think perfectly describes her transformation over the seasons: “My skin has gone from porcelain, to ivory, to steel.”
- While there are many houses that have supposedly sided with the Boltons over the Starks—Karstarks and Umbers, as we’ve already seen—there are still Northern houses that would fall in behind Sansa and Jon in their attack. For example, in Season 5 we saw a note from 10-year-old Lyanna Mormont (notice the name? She is Ser Jorah’s cousin, named after Lyanna Stark). She sent it to Stannis, declaring, “Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark.”
- Now that the War of the Five Kings has officially ended with all of their deaths, are we beginning the War of the Five Queens? Daenerys, Sansa, Cersei/Margaery (whoever comes out on top in King’s Landing), Yara, and Ellaria…