At the beginning of this episode when Jon and Edd were interrupted by the sound of the Watchman’s cry to “open the gates,” it occurred to me Sansa and her escort could be on the other side, but when the very next edit brought us to the image of the gate opening to reveal exactly that, I was actually shocked out of sheer disbelief that this long awaited and longed-for event could actually be happening. Just so, from the time Sansa, Brienne, and Pod were safely within the walls of Castle Black until the time Sansa and Jon saw each other and embraced, I feared that either one or both of them would be suddenly pierced by an arrow or cut down before the reunion could occur. Once it appeared that they would both at least survive that moment in the courtyard I felt a sense of relief I’m unaccustomed to feeling during an initial viewing of a new Game of Thrones episode.
The reunion scene between Jon and Sansa was remarkable for several reasons beyond the obvious. For starters, this moment marks the first time these two characters have been on screen together the entire series. This means that strictly speaking from a televisual standpoint, this reunion scene isn’t technically a reunion scene at all, yet as a viewer one experiences the scene as a reunion because one knows that these two have a shared history and have longed to be reunited in the long aftermath of their leaving Winterfell, however much they clashed in the backstory. The fact that this scene feels like and functions as a reunion is to the great credit of the series as a whole and especially the writers and actors. The world they’ve created is so coherent and well-maintained that one never doubts that this is in fact a reunion for these characters within the living reality of the series even though they’ve never had any scenes together prior to this moment.
As I’ve come to expect, the material at the Sept of Baelor was strong once again. What’s interesting to me about the scenes with the High Sparrow in the old sept where he typically receives his “guests” is that each instance is basically a slightly different version of the same scene, yet the sequences are reliably compelling. A large part of the credit goes to the strength of the performances, but I think the essential element from a narrative and screenwriting perspective is that none of the characters who enter that room ever seem to leave with what they desired or expected to obtain when they entered. As such, every one of those scenes in that location creates a significant shift in the narrative, character development, or both.
That old sept essentially functions as The High Sparrow’s throne room, a very deliberate counterpoint to the Iron Throne room in the Red Keep. In this isolated sept, the High Sparrow holds court completely out of view of the public and dispensing his brand of power in a rhetorical style altogether different than the monarchs and conquerers that populate the rest of the narrative universe of the series. What’s so interesting about watching these scenes and analyzing them in relation to each other over the course of High Sparrow storyline is how he uses a combination of subtle and overt manipulation to maneuver and dispense various characters like human chess pieces on his side of the board. He’s incredibly careful with what information he dispenses to whichever character he’s addressing and how he dispenses it, using various characters to play against each other to his advantage. It’s a bit reminiscent of the way Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) operated as an antagonist on Lost.
For myself, the scene between the High Sparrow and Margaery was one of the most fascinating yet for the simple reason that I’ve never been quite sure of the extent to which either one of them is ever being genuine and to what extent they are being so, if indeed they are, both of them being the masterful political operators and manipulators that they are. Margaery can certainly match wits with the High Sparrow, but he has the significant psychological edge in this meeting due to his status as her captor, which he knows how to utilize to his full advantage.
If the High Sparrow’s story of his journey to piety is at all true, it provides some really fascinating backstory for his character and it’s exactly the story Margaery needed to hear in order for him to work his way into her psyche, regardless of its veracity. The turning point in this scene was the moment Margaery interrupts his tale and finishes his sentence with a flippant quote from the Seven-Pointed Star, which the High Sparrow adroitly catches in stride and manages to use as a moment to humorously relate to her regarding Septa Unella’s didacticism. He then pivots the story in a direction Margaery didn’t expect expect and ended up driving his message home in a way that hit her quite close to the bone in much the same way that he penetrated Tommen’s defenses when he referred to Cercei by her first name in the previous episode. It was a very well executed piece of television that left me genuinely wondering what direction Margaery will go in going forward.
The High Sparrow’s “born again” story, Jon and Sansa’s reunion, Tyrion’s olive branch to the slavers, Theon’s contrite return to Yara and the Iron Islands, all relate directly to what I read as the larger theme of the episode, the concept of rebirth or second chances. The climax of “Book of the Stranger” in Vaes Dothrak drives the theme home in the grand, miraculous fashion that the showrunners seem to have reserved for the Mother of Dragons. Not only does Dany’s purge of the Dothraki leadership clearly echo the final sequence of season/book 1 where she emerges from Drogo’s funeral pyre naked and unharmed with three dragon hatchlings, it also echoes Dany’s massacre of the slavers of Astapor in season 3. I would go so far as to argue that Dany’s miracle in this episode is really a culmination or combination of the two.
Where the event that concluded season 1 can most accurately be described as a miracle, the destruction of the slave masters in season 3 was a tactical maneuver in her conquest of Slaver’s Bay. The destruction of the temple in this episode is both an assertive and calculated maneuver on her part made possible by the miracle of her emerging unscathed. In this instance she enlists fire as a weapon to purge an entire leadership class of patriarchal oppressors as she did in Astapor, as well as using the spectacle and miraculousness of the event to inspire the devotion of onlookers, as she did at the conclusion of season 1.
Most noteworthy about this sequence for the progression of Dany’s character and the narrative as a whole is the symbiosis of the differences and similarities to the dragon birth sequence in season 1. That she emerges naked from a fire is crucial in both cases, but the symbolism in either case is accordingly different.
Dany’s body, from the time of her introduction in the first episode all the way through the series, is treated as a commodity by myriad characters and represented as being regarded as such very purposefully and skillfully by the producers, and more so than any other character. Whereas in Westeros, women and their bodies are seen primarily as heir-producing vessels where the name a woman’s name carries as much importance as her ability to produce an heir, across the Narrow Sea where so many cultures place little to no value on the feudalistic concepts of names and birthrights, Dany’s body is regarded mostly as a commodity in and of itself to be discarded at will. She is married off/sold to Khal Drogo and treated very roughly until she takes ownership of her body and learns to use it on her terms in congress with Drogo, leading to the development of a partnership consisting of love, respect, and devotion unfamiliar to both of them in the beginning. After the death of Drogo and her unborn child, Dany is consumed by flames and fosters the dragons. Importantly, she doesn’t emerge from the fire while its still raging, but kneeling naked in the aftermath of the fire already extinguished with her newborn “children” nursing at her breast, symbolizing a newborn and a mother simultaneously.
The rest of her character arch and storyline to this point can arguably be interpreted as Dany continuing to take ownership of her body amidst constant threats to it from her adversaries along the way (I cannot easily recall a single adversary of Dany’s that didn’t threaten her with rape) and dedicating the power she amasses to the liberation of the physical enslaved. I think her experience being treated like a piece of meat and being reduced to a physical commodity in the eyes of so many is why she takes up the cause of the slaves, particularly the unsullied, who are literally mutilated for the the benefit of their masters. Her first scene in the series even features her being manhandled by her brother Viserys in much the same way slaves are inspected and haggled over based on their physical utility in the lead-up to her being presented to Drogo. Throughout her development and as she matures she is able to use her body as a weapon she wields of her own accord and chooses to share with Daario for her own pleasure, willfully violating taboos in favor of indulging her own desire.
When Dany is captured by the Khalasar in the final episode of season 5, she becomes physically compromised again and is tossed around like and regarded as a piece of meat in the same way she was in season 1, only to overthrow and destroy her violators in the climactic sequence of this episode. She emerges from the fire naked again but on her own two feet as a leader who has earned that status and cloaked in symbolic power with her most ardent devotee, Jorah, a once cynical man who dedicated himself to Dany after kneeling in awe at the miracle of the dragon birth and her lover Daario, who reacts to this miracle in much the same way Jorah reacted to the first. Much like the oft-mentioned “wheel” of the dynastic struggle at the center of A Song and Ice and Fire symbolized in the opening title sequence, the wheel of the narrative seems to be coming full circle with this climatic sequence and many other events in this episode.