Review: Daenerys plays with fire in a spectacular ‘Game of Thrones’

Senior Television Writer
05.16.16 185 Comments

A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I'm very attached to this knife…

“Many will die no matter what we do. Better them than us.” -Olenna

Things that have happened at the ends of fourth episodes of previous Game of Thrones seasons:

* In season 1, Lady Catelyn and her entourage make a citizens arrest of Tyrion for what she mistakenly believes is his role in Bran's attempted murder.

* In season 2, Davos watches in horror as Melisandre gives birth to a shadow demon.

* In season 3, Dany burns the slavers of Astapor and seizes control of the Unsullied army.

* In season 4, Craster's infant son is taken by the White Walkers and turned into one of them.

* In season 5, Barristan Selmy dies battling a few dozen Sons of the Harpy.

So, no, Game of Thrones doesn't mess around when it comes to this specific episode. It's not that earlier episodes each season – or later ones, for that matter – tend to lack for memorable climaxes. But this is around the point in any given season when GoT is done establishing the major players and stories for that year and can finally get down to business(*), as we saw throughout “Book of the Stranger,” but particularly in the stunning final scene, where Dany once again took advantage of her powers as the Unburnt Queen of the Andals to seize control of another army of Essos.

(*) This pattern isn't unique to GoT. Wire seasons tended not to get going until the fourth episode, Wild Bill played the dead man's hand in the fourth Deadwood of season 1, etc.

Dany burning all the khals to death, then emerging naked and unharmed before a throng of new worshippers, was satisfying on a number of levels at once. It was a beautiful bit of filmmaking – like so many of the show's best moments (the aforementioned sacking of Astapor comes to mind), it combined top-notch visual effects, great direction and performance, and our long history with the character to become something special – but also something of a relief after it seemed as if her abduction by the Dothraki was going to be yet another stall to keep her from crossing the Narrow Sea already. There's now clearly a larger purpose to it beyond another unplanned detour, as a woman who commands three dragons, the Unsullied, the Second Sons, and the entire Dothraki population is going to pose all sorts of problems not only for the masters of Slavers Bay, but for her eventual opponents back in Westeros. Dany's never been a perfect leader, and it's easy to imagine the Dothraki, once they've gained some distance from the miracle they just witnessed, chafing under her attempts to change their way of life. But it's never not a pleasure to watch her make her smug enemies choke on their own words – and for her to do it here without benefit of her dragons or any of her armies. We can deal with the inevitable problems of her ever-expanding power base another time; for now, let's just revel in that image of hundreds kneeling before her excellence.

That Dany so ruthlessly and definitively turned the tables on her would-be captors (or worse) seemed an appropriate ending to an episode – easily the best of the season so far – that was all about the seizure or maintenance of power through unconventional means.

What a relief Jon Snow and Sansa's reunion at Castle Black was! The show has done so many near-misses in the past – including one involving Sansa a couple of years ago, when she left the Eyrie literally days before Arya got there – that I assumed he would be long gone before she made it up there. Instead, they got to reunite, hug, bond over shared memories and misfortunes – “We never should have left Winterfell,” Jon suggests wisely, given all the tragedy that's befallen not only their own family, but much of Westeros, since Robert came to offer Ned a new job – and eventually to team up on a plan to erase Ramsay from the face of the world. Both sequences featuring the reunited siblings felt incredibly rich, and warm, and human, with both of them even allowing a smile or two now that they're in each other's company again.

Having abdicated his role as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Jon Snow theoretically has no position: he's not a Ranger, and while he's the oldest of Ned's surviving sons, he was never relieved of his bastard-dom the way Roose did for Ramsay. But the wildlings will fight for him, and perhaps many of the families of the North will be more apt to side with an unrecognized but sensible bastard over a recognized but insane one.

For that matter, the only reason Ramsay's continued existence, and violence – here stabbing Osha to death before she could do the same to him – is in any way tolerable at this stage is because so many forces are now aligning against him: Jon and the wildlings from the north, and Littlefinger and the armies of the Vale from the southeast. (Given what happens to the khals so soon after threatening to serially rape Dany, one can only hope justice is nearly as swift and brutal for Ramsay after that vile, overreaching letter he sent to Castle Black.)

Our first glimpse of Robin Arryn in a while suggests he's only slightly less capriciously cruel than Joffrey – and that only because his love of tossing people out the Moon Door can be curbed by a respected elder, whereas Joffrey so often ignored wiser counsel. But when Robin's advice is coming from Littlefinger – who elegantly and brutally places Lord Royce in a position to be reminded of exactly who's in charge here – then he's still incredibly dangerous. Littlefinger has spent his life pushing his way into corridors of power where a man of his birth should have no business. Having staged a silent coup of the Vale, he's now taking full advantage of it, and though he's on the side of right at the moment in attacking Ramsay, it's hard to ever feel good about a position Lord Baelish has taken.

Down in King's Landing, the Sparrow tells Margaery what he clearly wants her to take as an inspiring tale of how he learned to stop wanting to be like the rich and powerful men around him, but which, like so much of what he and his followers say, is boastful self-mythologizing. The Sparrow may not dress like the great lords of Westeros, but he's crowbarred himself into a position of power that few aristocrats can match, and will likely  be far tougher to displace than Cersei and Jaime believe. The Sparrow is smug and intolerant, but he's no fool; he had to know that Tommen would go running back to his mother to reveal every confidence, and I imagine the Tyrell army won't sweep back into King's Landing as swiftly and easily as they did during the Battle of the Blackwater. Or, if they do triumph, then I suspect Cersei will have a very hard time getting them to leave town, given how eager Olenna and her daughter are to take full command of the country. On this show, nearly every alliance brings with it the constant threat of betrayal, as characters like Cersei are forced to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, not even realizing that they'll one day have to deal with a woman to whom fire is a dear, dear friend.

With any luck, though, Dany's latest conquest will in turn make swift work of her recent problems with the masters of Astapor and Yunkai. Tyrion – who is essentially the Gerald Ford of Meereen, having been appointed, rather than elected, by a leader who quickly left town – does his best to negotiate a deal with the slavers, but the show has dragged its claws enough in this particular corner of the world. Better to get moving soon, now that the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Trains, Overturner of Braziers has enough manpower to occupy a few cities at once and still launch an army towards her final destination.

I don't expect to see her on a boat right away, but memories of all that went down in “Book of the Stranger” should hold me for a while as we wait.

Some other thoughts:

* Map talk: though there are scenes at the Pyke, the animators wisely left it out of this week's credits to give us our first glimpse of the Eyrie since early last season.

* Another advantage of having Sansa arrive at Castle Black when she did: there are now more important characters with conflicting agendas and backstories there than at any location on the show other than perhaps King's Landing, which can lead to a great scene like Brienne interrupting Davos and Melisandre's discussion of Shireen to bring up  uncomfortable reminders of Renly, and of Melisandre's role in his death. That Davos is still asking about his princess suggests this isn't the last we've heard of this subject, and I fear he will not take the truth of her death well if he ever learns all the details.

* Speaking of Brienne, how many hundreds of words of Brienne/Tormund fanfic have been written just since the episode ended? A lot, I would reckon. The scene in the Castle Black dining hall, with Tormund eyeing her lustily, Brienne uncertain how to react to such a gaze from any man, let alone a wildling, and Dolorous Edd looking uncomfortable about the whole thing, was priceless.

* Until now, Jorah had kept his condition a secret. Now Daario knows, but Daario is likely to be distracted for a while by his newfound understanding of the power and danger of the woman who shares her bed with him.

* As with many of the show's opposite-gendered sibling pairings, Margaery has long been depicted as tougher than her brother, a fact on particular display during their brief reunion in his cell. Also, her previous scene with the Sparrow did a nice job of spotlighting Natalie Dormer's ability to play Margaery playing someone else: to the Sparrow, it might seem as if she's genuinely intrigued by his story, but we can see enough of the woman who has previously manipulated two kings.

* Speaking of opposite-gendered siblings, Theon and Yarra's reunion did a nice job of reminding us not only of how emotionally damaged he still is by Ramsay's torture, but of how betrayed she felt when he refused to go along with her rescue attempt a few seasons back.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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