Season 6, Episode 4: ‘Book of the Stranger’
‘Book of the Stranger,’ the fourth episode in season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones, will be remembered because it delivers what is instantly, like The Red Wedding, or the castration of Theon Greyjoy, an epochal moment for the show. Daenerys Targaryen, having come to the temple in Vaes Dothrak to learn her fate, has the doors barred from the outside by a young Dosh Khaleen, tips over several braziers, and watches as the collective Dothraki Khals scurry amid the flames, burning to death before her eyes. Emerging from the temple, unscathed, and proudly naked, Daenerys watches stoically as a forming crowd that includes Jorah and Daario drops to their knees in communal worship.
It all happens so easily, you wonder why she didn’t burn them sooner, rather than be put through the rigmarole of being sent to live among the Dosh Khaleen and having to escape.
You could also ask how those fires spread so quickly and easily, but that would probably be nit-picking.
The moment is riveting and the image is striking.
It is also significant for reminding us that Daenerys’ messianic tendencies are more than the impositions of other people. She emerges from the ruins a god tried by fire, and her willingness a) to stand proudly on the tomb of cindered men and b) to relish the worship of subservient subjects, makes it apparent that no one believes in her godhood more than she does herself.
If ostensibly Daenerys is what you would call a ‘good’ character (ethically/morally speaking), she is also a prolonged lesson in the mechanics of utilitarianism; she will happily burn as many bodies as necessary for the greater good, an artefact of her character that tends to lend her a quality of impertinent arrogance.
Much has been made of Emilia Clarke’s nude scene over the last few days, and while the actress herself called it empowering, one must remember to distinguish between the actress and the character. Clarke may rightly be empowered, but Daenerys, in that final image, is bordering on the worst kind of madness: the delirium of a misguided saviour.
Lest we forget that her direct forbearer was the infamous Mad King, necessarily speared through the middle with a lance. The lifeline of supposed saviours ends most typically in insanity, on one hand, and martyrdom, in the other.
On the subject of nudity, it has always seemed odd that so much is made of the show’s sexual content, even as toned down as it has been the last couple of seasons, when the sex was always more frankly incidental than titillatingly pornographic. The oddness is made all the more apparent when juxtaposed with the show’s violence, which is as rampant as ever.
Ramsay Bolton, having captured Rickon Stark, sends a letter to Jon Snow at Winterfell demanding the return of Sansa, and the content of that letter is emblematic of just how viscerally brutal the show continues to be: he will have the Bolton army exterminate all the Wildlings; he will torture and kill Rickon; he will gang rape Sansa in front of John, forcing him to watch, before scooping out his eyeballs and killing him.
What does it mean that, collectively, we react less to extreme violence and violent provocation than the sight of sex or the nude female form on television?
Consider this season that Ramsay seems to sadistically kill someone in almost every scene he is in. This week, as the captive Osha attempted to seduce him and grab a knife, she was overwhelmed and stabbed in the neck. (Rest in peace, Osha.)
The violence, of course, is part and parcel of the show, but its every extremity is relative only to how desensitised or not we are, and its ante is fixed by our own reactions.
In the same way, the sex was probably toned down because we began to take it for granted. (Or maybe things just weren’t the same after Theon lost his penis.)
All in all, however, “Book of the Stranger” – besides including several significant turning points – is an excellent example of the opposing dichotomies that make the show work. The touching reunion of Sansa and Jon, for instance, reminds us that the heart of the show is less the glorification of detestable people than it is good people thrown into abominable situations, and the primal will to survive. A riveting episode!
8 out of 10
Next: The half-way mark…