All season long, “Game of Thrones” has been putting on episodes that essentially ask viewers to do the same thing that characters are trying to reckon with. Can we be patient through a fake-out on Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) death and a lot of setup? Can we bear up against Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) predations to get to the end of this literally and metaphorically torturous storyline?
And tonight, the theme is no less clear: “Can you forgive me?” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) asks her half-brother Jon, once they’ve reunited at Castle Black. “There’s nothing to forgive,” Jon tells Sansa, meaning that her childhood meannesses matter little against the winter that’s bearing down on them. “Forgive me,” Sansa insists, holding on to her dignity by insisting on even small decencies. “Alright, I forgive you,” Jon tells her, bowing to her standards.
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) is having a harder time with the concept, especially when she meets Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the woman responsible for Renly Baratheon’s (Gethin Anthony) death. “Yes, it’s in the past now,” Brienne tells Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) acidly. “It doesn’t mean I forget, or forgive.” In Meereen, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) tries to convince Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) that “my own recent experience with slavery has taught me the horrors of that institution,” though she warns him that his brief period of servitude was “not long enough to understand” what Missandei and Grey Worm and other former slaves lived through. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) does a better job of gritting her teeth, telling her son Tommen that what the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) did to her is “done. It’s in the past. And of course, Margaery’s safety is paramount.” And in Pyke, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) is having trouble accepting her brother’s apologies for getting her men killed, though she softens slightly when he insists he’s come back not to claim a throne he betrayed, but to try to help her claim it.
And you know what? I’m ready to forgive “Game of Thrones” for a slow start, some anti-climaxes and an unnecessary bit of nastiness — and not merely because “Book of the Stranger” beat the idea into me. This was a terrific episode of television, one that moved plot forward on a number of fronts, doing so with some nice character moments and cinematography and showcasing just how well the series’s editing of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” is working as we move towards a final confrontation.
Part of what makes the theme of forgiveness so strong in “Book of the Stranger” is the way the episode delineates between the slights you should forgive because they’re truly past, the injuries you forgive for strategic reasons and the sins so grave that they make resolution truly impossible.
The moments of recompense between siblings fall into the first category.
Sansa and Jon’s reunion at Castle Black may have been conveniently timed (as were a number of other elements of this episode), but it was the moment of joy I’ve been arguing the show needs for weeks. Episode director Daniel Sackheim’s choice to linger on their embrace, to capture their faces and even to allow the strings to swell in the soundtrack was lovely. Both Jon and Sansa have experienced and (in some cases) done terrible things since we saw the two of them last. Sansa’s betrayal inadvertently led to their father Ned’s (Sean Bean) execution, and Jon, as he reminded Sansa, has had to kill his Night’s Watch brothers and execute children in the name of the same ideals that Ned taught him.
Watching Sansa insist on apologizing for her childhood cruelties was a lovely moment. But it also gave Sansa the standing to help Jon come back to himself and to some revised concept of honor at a moment when he was prepared to throw it all aside to go South and “get warm,” as he told Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton), an act at minimum of folly and at most of gross disregard for what Jon knows to be the good of the world of men.
And I appreciated the moment of reconciliation between Yara and Theon for similar reasons. The Theon that Yara knew before was not someone who knew how to apologize, except for his own gain, and when she refuses to accept a version of her brother she sees as simultaneously broken and conniving, she’s rejecting him on those terms. But watching Yara come to understand that while Theon may have been broken, he’s returned to her a more honorable person is a quiet, sad moment. Theon’s goodness has come at a terrible price.
I start with these storylines not merely because they provided a badly-needed injection of human kindness and everyday emotion into “Game of Thrones,” but because they’re a nice illustration of how the show has rejiggered Martin’s plotlines to the great advantage of the drama.
In the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels, Sansa is still hanging out at the Eyrie, potentially being married off to the son of one of the Lords of the Vale as part of Petyr Baelish’s (Aiden Gillen, reduced to a cog in this vast machine) plotting, when Jon gets the letter from Ramsay Bolton declaring that he has Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson). Having Jon receive that letter when he’s with Sansa, who is already counseling Jon to ride South and reclaim Winterfell makes for a much neater, and more emotionally-effective storyline. And add to that Smalljohn Umber’s (Dean S. Jagger) potential betrayal of Ramsay at Winterfell and Baelish’s plot to march the Lords of the Vale into the North*, we have the setup for a nice convergence at Winterfell, (something I’ve been predicting for a couple of weeks now).
Similarly, in Martin’s novels, the Kingsmoot at Pyke merely introduced a whole lot of new characters, to frustrating, if occasionally dramatic effect, while Theon remained stuck at Winterfell as the latest incarnation of Reek, Ramsay’s slave. Now, we have a setup for Theon to continue redeeming himself, pulling Pyke back into the story emotionally as well as with whatever plot machinations “Game of Thrones” has yet to offer.
The second category of forgiveness also moves the story along in propulsive and exciting ways. In King’s Landing, Cersei may not hate Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) any less, but at least she and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) have come up with a scheme that propels the King’s Landing story forward in similarly exciting ways. Given Olenna Tyrell’s (Diana Rigg) unwillingness to see Margaery humiliated, Cersei and Jaime strike a temporary peace with the Tyrells and their uncle Kevan Lannister (Ian Gelder) to mount a coup against the High Sparrow.
I would be willing to lay a small portion of the gold the Lannisters keep stashed under Casterly Rock that this coup will be interrupted by a Dornish invasion. But in the interim, it’s great fun to see these two formidable women face up to their mutual dislike and forge a temporary pact. Cersei Lannister may have behaved stupidly and impulsively through much of the run of this show, but she’s not an inherently stupid woman — just one who has made terrible choices in awful circumstances. Seeing her muster up the patience to put her vengeance at least on hold in the name of a larger strategy is a nice way of gratifying the excellent work Lena Headey has put into making Cersei a compelling character even in circumstances where she might have been easy to dismiss as a harpy equal to the one who used to sit atop a pyramid in Meereen.
And in Meereen, of course, Tyrion Lannister is walking a knife edge, treating slavery as an injustice that might be forgiven for strategic reasons, when in reality, the people he’s trying to rule experienced slavery as a sin too great to ever be treated like a subject of negotiation.
It’s fascinating, especially given HBO’s forthcoming civil-rights drama “All The Way,” to see Peter Dinklage — always one of the standouts of this ensemble — take on a position that merges pre-Civil War efforts to keep the United States together with a dash of Lyndon Baines Johnson and a smidgeon of Richard Nixon. Tyrion may believe he’s offering the Masters of Astapor and Yunkai a good deal when he proposes a seven-year phase-out of slavery with compensation for the former owners of humans, and that he’s made a compelling case for a free labor economy. And in telling the Masters, “There have always been those with wealth and power. That’s the way of the world. I’m not here to change the way of the world,” he’s presenting himself as someone they can deal with.
But Tyrion is forgetting — or at least not focusing on — that he’s not actually the other party to this agreement. The slaves Dany freed, and who followed her to liberate Meereen, are the people who actually have to keep this deal. And while he may have been able to manipulate Missandei and Grey Worm into temporary and tepid shows of support for his position, inspired more by loyalty to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), their absent queen, than to Tyrion himself or to his plan, their support may not last. Missandei and Grey Worm have often been overlooked or treated rather instrumentally by “Game of Thrones,” so it’s nice to see the characters get to play a significant role in an episode that reminds us what Tyrion’s up against, and that his strategic adoption of forgiveness may not be so easy for others to extend to those who once owned them.
If the free people of Meereen decide to scotch Tyrion’s deal, their choice might not be strategic, but it also wouldn’t be wrong. “Book of the Stranger” began on a note for forgiveness, but it ended with astringent reminders that there are some things you can’t forgive, some submissions you can’t accept. Osha’s (Natalia Tena) death in Ramsay Bolton’s rooms was another testament to the idea that there can be no accommodation with this particular mad dog, no groveling or seduction that can blunt his cruelties. And in Vaes Dothrak, when faced with rape or relegation, Dany doesn’t go quietly into the desert night: once again, she sets it alight. Sometimes, there’s no choice but to burn down a flawed and broken world and try to start anew on the ashes.
*A plot he accomplishes, I might note, by manufacturing an insult and giving Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli) the chance to adopt Baelish’s plan as a sign of his own magnanimity and capacity to forgive. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can write a theme in everywhere they look, when given the chance.