This year, we’re going to be putting our day-after observations about Game of Thrones into writing, in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. In keeping with our tradition, these will focus on explicating one scene as an interpretive key for unlocking deeper interpretations of the episode’s themes. These articles will contain spoilers through he episode under discussion. This week, Jordan Stokes tackles “Book of the STranger” (S6 E3).
One of the things that sets Game of Thrones apart from the usual fantasy properties is that it’s a fantasy world without magic… except that it actually isn’t. Magic is there, right from the beginning of the series — remember that the very first scene in both the show and the book involves the White Walkers. Nevertheless, for most of the actual people in the Game of Thrones universe, magic doesn’t exist. It doesn’t affect their lives, they’ve never known anyone who can do it, and to the extent that they’ve heard stories about it, they see them as simply that: stories. There’s some fun dramatic irony here, because as viewers/readers, we know that magic is for real, and what’s more, we know that it’s not going to stay tucked away in the ‘here be dragons’ corners of the map. The big cold is coming down from the north. And then there’s Melisandre’s Red God, Dany’s dragons, whatever’s going on with the faceless men, Bran’s greensight and warging… all of these get more and more prominent over the course of the series. Magic is coming back into the world.
This is nifty. But as we roll into the sixth season, it causes a big problem for plausible characterization. Soon enough, every scene is going to feature a room full of people who grew up thinking that magic was fake, and now know that magic is real. And it seems like the way the writers are handling this is to just have everybody act like nothing happened.
Like, here’s how I imagine Jon and Sansa’s reunion actually would have gone.
Jon: “… and then after that I got stabbed to death, and then I was resurrected, and then, well, you showed up. So that’s what’s been up with me. How have you been?”
Sansa: “YOU CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD?!”
Jon: “Yeah, the priestess of R’hollor magicked me back to life.”
Sansa: “YOU CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD THANKS TO PAGAN FIRE MAGIC?!” [She backs away, crossing herself frantically.] “Stay away from me, demon! The power of Christ compels you!”
Jon: “Get a hold of yourself, women, you’re supposed to be pseudo-Christian.”
Or alternately, if Sansa talks first:
Sansa: “… and then long story short, he turned out to be even more of an asshole than Littlefinger and Joffrey combined. And then Theon and I escaped by jumping into a snowbank, and then Brienne — did you meet Brienne? I think you’ll like her, anyway, it turns out she — “
Jon: “Sorry to interrupt, but ZOMBIES! UNSTOPPABLE HORDE OF FROZEN KILLER ZOMBIES! COMING THIS WAY!”
Sansa: “Are you mental? Zombies aren’t real, Jon.”
Jon: “They’re real. I fought some. I barely survived.”
Sansa: “… and there’s lots of them? Coming here?”
Jon: [Nods frantically, biting his lip.]
Sansa: “Oh my god. Oh my GOD! Why did you let me keep TALKING?! I’ve been going for HOURS, we need to WARN EVERYONE!”
[They join hands and bolt southwards making “woop woop woop” noises à la Dr. Zoidberg.]
And then just to remind you, this is how their reunion actually went:
Sansa: This is good soup.
Now, this much is just me nitpicking. But I think there’s a deeper connection to be made here. Lest we forget, even if we take the supernatural aspects out of it, Jon and Sansa have been through some intensely horrific experiences. Oughtn’t this to matter a little more than it does? I mean, Sansa… look, Sansa was raped and tortured. Maybe she’s told Jon about this, maybe she hasn’t. Either way, that’s kind of a big deal. But we don’t get to hear that part of their reunion. Instead, we get the soup.
And it’s not like the show doesn’t care about the way that huge traumatic forces disrupt everyday life, at least when those forces are zombies. On the most abstract level, Game of Thrones is basically like Titanic: people are scurrying around, sneering, rearranging the deckchairs, and occasionally boinking in the back of a Renault, and then the plot smashes into a mountain of frozen death. Once everyone knows the truth, they’ll all have to pull together, right? Right?
Maybe not. Because now some of them do know, but the writers aren’t really letting them react to that knowledge. It’s beginning to seem like Game of Thrones is a show about magic, and trauma, and people steadfastly refusing to talk about either magic or trauma.
And this — continuing to rearrange the deck chairs, post iceberg — is also kind of what the episode is about on a surface level. Melisandre’s faith should have been irrevocably shattered by everything that went down with Stannis. Instead she’s sticking to her same old playbook, just with a different messiah. Brienne is still mainly worried about punishing Renly’s enemies: Renly’s death is in the past, but Brienne doesn’t forget or forgive. This seems noble, because Brienne is noble, but let’s think about it for a minute. For Brienne, Sansa is the iceberg. Renly’s death is in the past. Sansa needs Brienne’s help right now, because the Boltons (and actually screw the Boltons because ZOMBIES!). And right at the end, the assembled Dothraki Khals seriously overestimate the significance of whatever conversation they were trying to have.
Most notably, there are the twin scenes in King’s Landing and Mereen. In one, Cersei convinces Olenna Tyrell to form an alliance with her in order to break the Faith Militant, on the basis that preserving aristocratic privilege is more important than which aristocrats in particular are the most privileged. In another, Tyrion offers a bargain to the Masters of Astapor and Yunkai which would allow them to maintain their wealth and power while nominally abolishing slavery.
The first is interesting because, in real life, this plan would probably work just fine. Yes, eventually the crowned heads of Europe had to make way for the historically inevitable rise of democracy, but the first hundred or so times that the aristocrats banded together to quash a populist uprising, those uprisings stayed quashed. (Hey, High Sparrow! The year 1848 called: it says you’re boned.) In the context of the show, however, I think we’re meant to realize that Cersei is out of her depth. The threat posed by the Faith Militant is a more profound one than she realizes: they’re equivalent to the zombies, to the iceberg. Preserving aristocratic privilege is no longer an option. If she was smart, she would be running as fast and as far as she could, and stealing the silverware on her way out the door.
The second scene is interesting because it shows Tyrion playing on the Masters’s natural tendency to ignore the iceberg. Astapor and Yunkai can’t possibly coexist with a free Mereen. The former slaves know this, Missandei knows this. Tyrion, as thick as he lays on the bulls#!+, presumably knows this. And the Masters also know this — or at least they knew it, which is why they’ve been frantically trying to assassinate Daenerys! But Tyrion offers them a plausible scenario where Dany isn’t an existential threat: “Hey,” they’re presumably thinking “these lap dances are nice, and the Suns of the Harpy are expensive, and we can go back to business as usual for seven whole years! I’d really like to go back to business as usual: we haven’t rearranged those deck chairs in forever.” It’s brilliantly calibrated, really. Tyrion’s offer — abolish slavery, or else! — is just insulting enough that it probably doesn’t occur to them that he might be lying through his teeth.
And then of course there’s the exchange that the episode is named after, where the High Sparrow paraphrases the Book of the Stranger. The Sparrow tells Margaery that he used to be dedicated to luxury, food, clothing, and sex, but then he caught a glimpse of ultimate reality, and it made him realize what was really important in life. In the Book of the Stranger, that ultimate reality is supposed to be death. For the High Sparrow, it was nudity: seeing people’s real humanity, with all pretense stripped away. But the result is the same. He put aside the world of appearances, of luxury, of wealth and status, and turned to higher things. Well, the show has shown us the ultimate reality of death. (That would be the White Walkers.) It’s shown us the absolute worst side of the appetite that lies behind luxury and vice. (That would be Ramsay.) I, for one, am ready to start paying attention to those things. But the characters on the show feel no such sense of urgency. After all, the soup is good.
Really insightful post! I think to some extent we’ve all notice this, and I think we’re supposed to, but you make the problem really explicit.
In some ways, the uniting theme of the show is that it’s full of people with previous agendas. They’re not waiting for events to show them what to aim at; they see events as obstacles for achieving their already-established aim. At the largest scale, it’s clear that winter is coming, and yet the title of the show is “Game of Thrones”. In your terms, it’s like: “Iceberg is coming” on the show “Game of Deckchairs”. One some level it must be intentional that we are meant to scream at the characters to stop playing at their old zero-sum shit and respond rationally to their existential, collective problem. “After all,” the showrunners would smugly say, “aren’t we all a little like them too?”
Well yeah, a little. But GoT is way overplaying that note. At some point, when new shit comes to light, we drop what we were doing and attend to it. You might think there are counterexamples, but none of them are anything like GoT zombies. Just about everybody is either a “magical zombies are coming” denier, or thinks it matters less than their local agenda. The first problem is that the people who hold all the evidence aren’t really sending urgent reports to all the kingdoms about what they’ve seen. Maybe they’re thinking that everyone knows this but would rather invest their resources into a local zero-sum game rather than collective action.
It’s probably a sign of Jon’s Jesusiness that he is the first to abandon old priorities in favor of unprecedented alliances, because of the unprecedented situation. Daenerys also plays that note in her final insults to the Khals, charging them with small-mindedness for only caring about their own local issues and ignoring the big picture. But it’s not clear what big picture she has in mind, and whether she’s even tracking the “winter” issue. Somehow I suspect that fire will be a part of the answer to the descending ice, and that Daenerys will have a role to play there.
Now that I mention it, there was another important “collective action requires us to abandon old divisions” plotline, in which the Tyrells and Lannisters agree to team up against the Sparrow. But maybe even there, Cersei is still plotting to kill two “birds” with one stone.
Excellent discussion. I’ve had a similar and nagging thought about these looming ‘magical icebergs.’ As you’ve said, these dire threats are on the periphery, zombies in the far north, dragons over in Essos. Each of these alone could easily take out the center where most of the squabbling is taking place, which is roughly King’s Landing. I’m confident the show/books will have some dramatically satisfying way of resolving it all. But, in the back of my mind I keep thinking maybe these two ‘icebergs’ crash into each other somewhere around The Neck, leaving whoever is best at the petty politics and squabbling in control at King’s Landing.
I think you are being a bit harsh in your take on the Jon/Sansa reunion.
These are two people who, at this moment especially, yearn for a return to NORMALCY. Normalcy for Sansa has always meant Winterfell. She finally get their and she is imprisoned, tortured, and sexually abused by a sadist. All that would be bad enough, but the violation occurring at her HOME makes it even worse.
To Jon normalcy is also Winterfell. Yes, it’s more complicated for him as a bastard, but he has literally, as he said, been through hell since he left. The other sense of normalcy that he has, strengthened by his being a bastard, is to emulate Ned Stark by being honorable. Every step of the horrible way, he has strived to retrain that constant in order to have some normalcy in his life. And when the stakes were highest; when there were literally monsters and zombie armies driving his decision to give shelter to the Free Folk, his honor got him murdered.
For both of them, a return to normalcy is what they want more than anything else, even it there is a long path to get there and even if it’s unclear what the final form would look like. But at this moment in time, right when both have been relieved of their greatest recent horrors and found each other again, they just want to bathe in the sense of normalcy that being together provides.
And that most certainly does NOT involve discussing rape, resurrection, zombie armies, or ice monsters.
I interpreted their reunion scene and a warm, defensive shroud that they have cast around themselves to enjoy for a moment because they have both been psychically shattered. I assumed they would discuss the horrors at some point later.
If they never do, or if Sansa doesn’t bat an eyelash to any of it, then yes, something is missing. But to assume “oh my God that would be the FIRST think I would mention and in all caps!!” is to put yourself too much into the shoes of a broken person who just wants some warmth and comfort for a minute.
I agree, and I’m glad you brought this up. My first draft of this post tried to address this, but I couldn’t quite find the right words. Yes: there is something psychologically very believable — and very touching — about the way that they cling to normalcy and nostalgia in that one little slice of conversation. I think that the interaction we actually see on the show is definitely an interaction that they would have had…
And if this was a three act play starring Jon and Sansa, that would be fine, because you know it would only be a matter of time before they got down to the serious issues that both of them are facing. But because Game of Thrones is juggling so many plots, we don’t have that guarantee. We’re used to seeing the most important five minutes of every conversation, and assuming that everything else got taken care of off-camera. As you say, you “assumed they would discuss the horrors at some point later.” Did you assume that we’d get to see it? Or would it just be another background detail?
To me, this is too important to be relegated to background. I would gladly have traded any of the other scenes in this episode for a scene where Sansa gets brought fully up to speed on the zombie crisis. (The trauma stuff, I’m a little more ambivalent about. I think that it’s fine for her to grit her teeth and get on with her life, if that’s actually what the writers are trying to do. But I don’t trust the writers when it comes to Sansa: they have a tendency to forget about her, and I’m worried that they forgot about her suffering.)
So these two above comments actually synthesized the episode for me and I’d like to offer a grand theory of this episode:
The High Sparrow referred to the clothes we wear as lies, and told the story of how human nudity revealed ultimate truth for him. (Whether this is a lie or not is an interesting question, but not germaine to the point).
And, as Jordan pointed out, the episode ends with some striking nudity in Danareys’ triumphant burning of the Khals (and her clothing) while remaining unburnt.
Of course, because GoT loves to do this, we are given a strong contrast. Dany stands before all as naked as the day she is born, but it is clearly a vision of strength, and tenacity. Her nudity has revealed the truth about her, and it is that she is powerful. She is the unburnt.
Similarly, as GoT likes to do, we’re faced with variations on the theme with assorted outcomes. (One of the best things about GoT is that it doesn’t really take a position on anything, it merely mulls possibilities).
Most strikingly, the juxtaposition of the nudity of the three Queens. How Cersei’s nudity from her walk of atonement influences the discussion regarding Margeary’s potential walk, and how this MUST NOT happen. Meanwhile, Dany, naked, powerful, queen.
But, this discussion of normalcy puts this paradigm through a different lens. These efforts to return to normalcy in the face over overwhelming circumstances represent a sort of clothing, if you will. A comfortable lie worn by John and Sansa. Or, perhaps in the case of Tyrion and Varys, the mantle they wear as the de facto rulers of Mereen, and that this lie is just merely trying to hold things together.
Your comments and article really unlocked a puzzle for interpreting this episode for me. So thank you!