Game of Thrones already knows that the systems in place are doomed to failure. The monarchical system in Westeros contains such a power imbalance that it’s only a matter of time until the whole thing falls apart. Kings’s Landing is in the stages of a complete breakdown because of a populist rebellion, the Iron Islands are in disarray, people are murdering and brutalizing one another all because one position has too much power. And we can already see the endgame being set up to change the system entirely. Jon and Daenerys are gearing up for war, with everybody else engaging in petty squabbles that ultimately do nothing to stop conflict or prepare for the ultimate conflict, the force that annihilated Hardhome.
“Book of the Stranger” is a great episode, one that pushes the show closer to its endgame, setting up the major conflicts of the season. We know that Jon is going to face off against Ramsay (and let’s be real, we know he’s going to win), we know hat Cersei’s plan to overthrow the Sparrows isn’t going to go as planned, and we know that Daenerys is gearing up to head to Westeros. Many of these plots are seasons in the making, and they’re clearly going to have major, major consequences that will reshape the political landscape of Westeros (and Essos). But what makes this all really work is that Game of Thrones is a show built around payoff. We waited SIX SEASONS for a Stark reunion, and we got one when Jon and Sansa reunited at the beginning of the episode. Some of this has to do with the way that George R. R. Martin doesn’t exactly know where his story is going, but now that Benioff and Weiss are on their own and are plunging ahead towards the ending, payoff can finally happen. And even when parts of the story are tedious or are so loosely spread that it’s ridiculous (we haven’t seen Dorne since the premiere and we saw Sam exactly once), this payoff makes it mostly worthwhile.
What also helps is the attention to detail, to the behavior of specific characters, as it livens up the episode, making it feel a little more lived-in and personal. The events at the Wall are only there to position Jon against Ramsay, but taking the extra time to put Brienne, Davos, and Melisandre together means that we get to see their characters feel and experience something new as a result of being together. Instead of these characters being pieces for the plot to move around, they get to live inside the world and live inside the story. It can be very, very easy for a show to only fixate on plot, but Game of Thrones has so much character built up at this point in the series that it’s relatively simple to have Brienne speak to Davos and make it feel like these are two people interacting. It’s moments like that which saves the series from slumping in these later seasons, invigorating the narrative and keeping us attentive.
But let’s do a quick overview of what happened in “Book of the Stranger”. Littlefinger prepares to enter the war. Theon returns home to help Yara become leader of the Iron Islands. Tyrion strikes an unpopular deal with the slavers to keep the Sons of the Harpy from continuing to attack them. Ramsay kills Osha and antagonizes Jon. Sansa pushes Jon to prepare for war with Ramsay in order to rescue Rickon and reclaim Winterfell. Jaime and Cersei plot against the High Sparrow. And Daenerys finally escapes from the Khals by burning their hut to the ground, emerging as the new leader of the Dothraki. The common thread running through this plotting is that we see unpopular leaders begin to wrench power from those who abide by either old rules or their worst impulses. Rulers like Ramsay and the Lannisters are only going to keep losing power. Even if the High Sparrow is inevitably defeated (which clearly won’t happen anytime soon, as Cersei’s plan seems a little too near for Game of Thrones standards), Daenerys is coming to take back King’s Landing. As the political needs of the world change, as systems fall apart, those that still subscribe to the old way are doomed to failure. Rulers like Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys are the rulers of the future because they’re the ones with a new vision of what the world is supposed to be. They’re also a little lucky.