Women in Westeros never get a fair deal. At best, a highborn lady can be used to seal political alliances via marriage and children, and hopefully endure said marriage with minimal harm. At the extreme worst, they are battered and raped, viewed as no more than a collection of holes for the men who rule over them. The patriarchy is in full effect in the Seven Kingdoms, and the female protagonists of Game of Thrones have been in constant struggle with the shackles this society places them in.
These chains are broken in "Book of the Stranger," the fourth episode of season six.
Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Sansa Stark have been victimized throughout the preceding five seasons, but none are defined by their victimhood; tragedy surrounds, but does not consume, them. Season five specifically marked a low point for these characters; but as the midway point of the sixth season nears, the ladies of Westeros look to solidify and enhance their station as major conflicts inch towards their respective climaxes.
In the Great Grass Sea of Essos, Daenerys awaits judgment in the Dothraki capital of Vaes Dothrak. Daenerys abdicated her duties of joining the sorority of Dosh Khaleen after Khal Drogo’s death, and the resident khals must weigh in on whether Dany should be granted clemency for her march of conquest, or be punished for it (which likely means rape and death in Dothraki culture).
Before her judgment, however, Daenerys bides time in the presence of the other Dosh Khaleen, learning the stories of her fellow khaleesis. Daenerys, despite being a silver-haired Valyrian, assimilates quite well with this group, having strong grasps of the horselords’ cultures and language. More importantly, Dany discovers that the circumstances of marriage and widowhood for the other khaleesis are not unlike her own.
A young Lhazareen khaleesi specifically catches Daenerys’s eye; captured by a Khal while still a child, this young khaleesi served a couple years beside her khal before his death, and ever since she has been resigned to her fate as Dosh Khaleen. This woman’s life has essentially been stripped of her; taken to bride at 12 and forced to live out her days as Dosh Khaleen since her mid-teens, she will never again know freedom or the world outside Vaes Dothrak.
The fate of the other khaleesis informs Daenerys’s power play later; she’s fighting not only for her own freedom, but that of all in Vaes Dothrak, Dothraki and slave alike. Overthrowing the domineering warlords is just part of the plan; with a show of strength, Daenerys Stormborn could potentially bring the remaining khalasars under her command.
That strength is flexed with fiery aplomb in the episode’s jaw-dropping climax scene. Daenerys has her audience with the khals, who level their crude, misogynistic comments at the silver-haired khaleesi. Daenerys remains unfazed, letting words simply wash over her. Daenerys’s growth from the inaugural season is in full view here; not only is she utterly unperturbed by the khals’ threats, she has already sealed their fates inside the temple (with an assist from Daario Naharis and Jorah Mormont).
Barricaded and soaked in pitch, the Dosh Khaleen temple is tinder awaiting spark. Daenerys tells these "small men" they are not fit to lead, nor do they have the vision to take the great Khalasar across the salt sea and into Westeros. And with a slight push, Dany knocks down the braziers and engulfs the temple in flames.
The Dothraki horde outside gathers as their holy temple goes up in flames, and watches as an unclothed, unburnt Daenerys Targaryen emerges from the fire.
The Dothraki, known for following strength, immediately bow to the dragon queen, as Daario and Jorah approach the pyre. The look in the eyes of each men is telling; for Jorah, it’s affirmation of his purpose, that this woman is not only the right ruler, but the right person to follow. For Daario, it’s his first time truly witnessing the power of Daenerys Stormborn. Riding a dragon is one thing; immunity to fire is another entirely.
This entire scene, from the acting, imagery, and score, is nothing short of fantastic. These components come together mightily, providing catharsis and giving Daenerys a launching point for the next part of her arc. With a Dothraki cavalry to pair with her Unsullied army and dragons, she now has the military might to wage a campaign against the Sons of the Harpy in Meereen and then the high lords of Westeros.
The writing for this scene ought to be commended as well. This episode’s climax allowed Dany to utilize the full extent of her agency, and her rescue was not contingent on rescue via dragon or Jorah/Daario. Instead, it is Daenerys’s own machinations that dethroned the khals, and her own power (not that of Drogon or the Unsullied) that brings the Dothraki to heel.
Dany's power is fully realized in this moment. She not only asserts her authority to rule, but declares herself as a force of nature, a sheer force of will derived not from dragons or Unsullied but the blood that flows in her own veins. She is Fire and Blood, the words of House Targaryen.
This reclamation of self echoes a prophecy laid at Daenerys's feet in A Song of Ice and Fire texts. "To go forward, you must go back," the masked Quaithe told her once. Here, then, Daenerys has returned to where her journery first started, to the place she became the Mother of Dragons. Now she can move forward, and be reborn as Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
The arc of Daenerys Stormborn has been mostly an upward trajectory since the series’s inception; she begins as a child bride who is raped by her warlord husband, but slowly begins seizing the power around her, acquiring armies, dragons, and loyal supporters in the process.
Conversely, Cersei Lannister’s trajectory has been downward; she began the series as Queen of Westeros and survived the turmoil of the War of the Five Kings relatively intact.
That all changed when the High Sparrow strolled barefoot into King’s Landing last season and literally stripped Cersei of all that she held dear.
The early episodes of season six have shown the Queen Mother trying to shore up her power base; she has made amends with her brother, reinforced the relationship with her son the king, and through Qyburn, acquired a network of spies.
Now, Cersei Lannister only lacks an armed force to seize back the capital from the Faith. The Lannister army is currently commanded by her uncle Kevan Lannister at the behest of King Tommen, and the relationship between Cersei and Kevan is frosty to say the least.
Moreover, having the family of the Crown attack the Faith would be a bad look for the smallfolk, and to that end Tommen had asked Ser Kevan to not engage the Faith Militant. Instead, Cersei turns to another "queen," the Queen of Thorns Olenna Tyrell.
As matriarch of House Tyrell and grandmother to Queen Margaery, Lady Olenna has every incentive to prevent Margaery from enduring the same embarrassment Cersei had.
Cersei, along with her twin Jaime, then propose a solution to the Faith’s power grab. Ser Kevan will stand down the Lannister forces and allow the Tyrell army to march into the city and lay siege to the Faith.
The Tyrells have climbed too far to let the High Sparrow destroy the next generation of their house, while Cersei and Jaime can keep most of the Lannister army out of any impending skirmishes. And if the commoners take umbrage with an attack on the Faith, it is House Tyrell, not Lannister, left holding the bloody sword.
Cersei and Olenna are not the only queens hard at work in the Westerosi capital; Margaery Tyrell puts her own plots into motion as she attempts to secure freedom for herself and her brother Loras.
Margaery’s imprisonment has lasted longer than Cersei’s, but unlike the dowager Queen, Margaery has yet to break. In her audience with the High Sparrow, Margaery matches wits with him, being able to cite the Book of the Stranger, a holy text of the Faith which gives this episode its name.
As a highborn lady of Westeros, Margaery would have been required to learn about the Faith so she could be a proper lady at court, and engage in the traditions of Westerosi culture. Margaery weaponizes this knowledge here, feigning humility to the High Sparrow as he pontificates on his own upbringing. Margaery plays the penitent sinner, and seems to be granted freedom pending her own walk of atonement.
This gambit pays off, as Margaery is allowed to meet with Loras for a brief minute afterward.
Loras appears to have broken under the tortures of the Faith, more so than his sister. He claims to be weak and defeated, but Margaery will hear no more; her story doesn’t end in the Great Sept of Baelor, and she will do what she needs to escape the Faith Militant.
A Tyrell-Lannister alliance may be coming, but Margaery is wise enough to know she may need to work on her own way out as well.
Lastly, we head up north, where all the ice walls and White Walkers in Westeros could not chill the warmth overflowing from the Jon-Sansa reunion.
Since the second episode of the series, the Stark children have been scattered to the wind, each having their own, mostly independent plot threads. Stark reunions have been teased several times (Jon and Bran twice, Arya and Sansa at the Bloody Gate), but this catharsis had always been withheld from the audience until now.
There’s something basic yet altogether powerful about Jon and Sansa’s meeting.
Both left Winterfell with delusions of grandeur; Sansa dreamt of southron knights and tourneys and princesses, while Jon searched for purpose in the legendary order of the Night’s Watch. Both dreams turned nightmarish, as the stories and songs of their childhood were eroded away by the terrors of the Seven Kingdoms. Both have been fighting since the day they left Winterfell, trying to maintain the moral fortitude Ned Stark instilled in them while they cope with the tragedy of their circumstances.
With that in mind, Sansa and Jon’s embrace was the first true reprieve for House Stark in nearly five seasons of television.
The show deftly presented the first encounter with no words exchanged; the body language and facial expressions spoke to more emotion than words ever could. Sansa and Jon were never the best of friends, but they are family, and the children of Winterfell.
The reunion awakens the wolf in Sansa; a victim and pawn for too long, Sansa has no hesitation at laying out the path for Jon. They are Starks, and Winterfell is their home. They cannot, nay will not, allow the greatest Northern house to be relegated to the dustbin of history. Instead, Sansa declares, it is time to take back their ancestral home, and ensure that House Stark lives on.
Jon is initially reluctant at such a plan, claiming he’s done nothing but fight since the day he enlisted.
That’s not enough for Sansa, however. She’s been fighting too, and her fight is not over. Ramsay not only took her castle, he took her innocence. She repeatedly tells Jon that this is their fight, their last chance to restore House Stark to its rightful place. At worse, dying for this cause allows them to be who they are: Starks of Winterfell.
This conversation between half siblings nicely parallels the scene between Margaery and Loras.
Whatever hesitation Jon had quickly dissipates upon the arrival of a letter from Ramsay Bolton. "Come and see, bastard," Ramsay says, as he threatens to march the whole of his force to smash the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. He wants his bride back, so that his rule of the North can go unchallenged when side-by-side with the daughter of Lord Eddard Stark.
Even worse, Ramsay claims that young Rickon Stark languishing in the dungeons.
This acts as a call to arms for all involved; not only does the fate of Winterfell hang in the balance, but so too does the life of their baby brother. Tormund Giantsbane pledges 2,000 wildlings to the man who saved them from the Walkers, and Sansa hopes to rally other Northern lords to their cause (and possibly even the Knights of the Vale; more on that later).
All this sets the factions in the North on a collision course for each other, under the battlements of Winterfell, where our epic saga started years ago.
George RR Martin’s epic does what very few fantasy stories do; it asks us to follow the political and social circumstances of medieval culture to its logical conclusions, exposing the horrid underbelly thereof. The abuse and degradation of women is at the core of this story, showing how such a society undermines the autonomy and agency of women through its martial nature and patriarchal laws.
Because of this backdrop, "Book of the Stranger" emerges as one of the more powerful episodes in the show canon, as female characters across the world take back their agency and work to uproot (or burn) the very men trying to enslave them.
All men must die, it is said, but these are not men.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Not to be shortchanged from the list of queens, Yara Greyjoy gets the endorsement of her baby brother Theon as Queen of the Iron Islands. The reunion scene is captivating, as Yara lays into her brother for not fleeing when she came to his rescue two seasons ago. Theon has nothing but contrition, admitting that Ramsay broke him into a thousand pieces, some of which he will never mend. His story is not yet done, however, and if he can seat his sister on their father’s throne, the Ironborn in Theon may finally be at peace.
- More Ramsay nonsense: this week, we have another gratuitous scene with Ramsay Bolton, seen here killing Osha, Rickon’s wildling protector. While Natalie Tena is always a delight, this scene offered little aside from another gruesome death at the new Lord Bolton. No new information is gleaned from it, and there’s zero tension in the scene: a villain like Ramsay Bolton is not built up for 4 seasons just to be offed by a character who has been off-screen for 2+ years. If the whole point of bringing Osha back was to help the audience remember Rickon Stark, I see no reason why this "death" couldn’t have been handled in their return to screen last week.
- Tormund Giantsbane and Brienne of Tarth. I am here for this ‘ship.
- Finally, this episode marked the season debut for Petyr Baelish, a.k.a Littlefinger, found here returning to the Vale to meet with Robin Arryn and Lord Royce. The Lord of the Vale has grown since his last appearance, though his skills at combat have not. The young Robin is still very much infatuated with "uncle Petyr," and essentially bends to his counsel on all matters. Lord Royce does not endorse Littlefinger’s plans to march the Knights of the Vale on Winterfell, but a quick mention of the Moon Door quickly puts him in check. This acts as nice reminder to how Littlefinger operates; via proxies, through veiled threats and promises of gold or death. His ploys offer a stark contrast to the more overt power dynamics dictated by the women elsewhere in this episode.