[WARNING – This article contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 6, episode 4, as well as open discussion of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.]
Only a few scant details which came from the books made it into last night's episode, 'Book of the Stranger', yet Game of Thrones was all the better for it. And it's a strange thing to admit, that an adaptation which is seemingly no longer beholden (as least not as stringently) to its source material is an improvement, but where many of last season's deviations felt like missteps, the path which season 6 is charting has the show getting back on track.
After some wheel-spinning in earlier episodes, Tyrion appears to be making headway in Meereen, brokering a deal with the slave masters (note the return of Yezzan zo Qaggaz) who want nothing more than their old way of life back. It's hard to imagine Ser Barristan would be as compromising, which sure has what's happening in Meereen feel lightyears ahead from where we left off in A Dance with Dragons. The events in King's Landing are transpiring in a tad more measured pace, but the timeline remains jumbled. Still, it's interesting to see a certain pair alive considering Varys dispatches with them before leaving King's Landing in the books, but without them the small council would be awfully small.
As for one of very few the narratives still working with material from the published novels, Game of Thrones manages to keep the Iron Islands feeling fresh, presenting a endearing if not especially warm reunion between Yara and Theon. And in Winterfell, we continue being kept appraised of whatever horrible thing Ramsey is up to this week, a repetitious stop in what's become a tedious storyline. Osha derserved better.
"Where Will We Go?"
Game of Thrones is not necessarily known for having genuinely happy moments, but in 'Book of the Stranger' the series presented one of - if not the happiest reunion to date. For siblings that were never close (and actors who've never shared a scene together), their embrace speaks volumes about not only what Jon and Sansa and the Starks in general have endured, but how any reminder of home is comforting in a way little else could be.
This reunion also brings together a varied cast of characters, something that seemed impossible only a season ago. In fact, it still seems almost too good too be true, but here we are, presented a scene in where at one table are gathered Tormund, Podrick, Brienne, Sansa, Dolores Edd, and Jon - not too mention Ser Davos and Melisandre, who skip the meal but remain at Castle Black. It's a wonderful convergence, and one that certainly seems to suggest there's no putting these characters and their narratives on hold any longer.
For book readers, it's hard to say if this is where we'll eventually find these characters in The Winds of Winter. Both Jon and Sansa's storylines are beyond what's been published, though Jon's is not too far ahead of where readers left him (read: dead), while Sansa has been severally diverted from her course in the novels, giving way to all sorts of questions of just how she could appear at this moment in the novels. Still, Game of Thrones continues to build an interesting blend of what's happened on TV and what readers are expecting.
Enter the "Bastard Letter" or "Pink Letter", as fans refer to it, so named because it's addressed "Bastard" and sealed with the pink wax of House Bolton. In the books, Jon receives Ramsey's goading letter just before his murder, but here the series has again played with the timeline and the result is far more satisfying. Now Jon has quite the network of allies to aide in his fight for Winterfell, not to mention the chance to rally more to his cause as Sansa suggests. Plus, the threats Ramsey makes cut much deeper, with a captured Rickon and a threatening of Sansa having a stronger impact than a captured Mance Rayder (yep, still alive in the books) and a threatening of Selyse and Shireen (both already dead on the show). Any actual confrontation is still weeks away, but until then, it's comforting to know Jon and Sansa now have each other.
Best Player in the Game
Having been absent for a large portion of season 5 and so far all of season 6, the return of Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish is a sure sign that the game is about kick into high gear. Littlefinger still holds The Eyrie, the seat of House Arryn, and through clever manipulation of the young heir, Robin, is able to continue using their forces for his own gain - deftly concealing his blunder in marrying Sansa to Ramsey Bolton.
Then again, was that marriage a mistake on Littlefinger's part? In the books he's been orchestrating a similar arrangement for Sansa, planning to wed her to Robin's heir, Harrold Hardyng. That character is only one of many cut for the television series, but Sansa's arranged marriage to Ramsey and her's to Harrold may in fact serve a similar purpose - granting Littlefinger control of Winterfell. That does appear to be his plan on the show and in the books, that she would gain her family's ancestral home and he would rule either through her or by marrying her himself (once she was conveniently widowed, of course). And as if for added security, Littlefinger did have Cersei name him Warden of The North during their last meeting, though it's unclear who was informed of that development or how official it actually was.
However, the bigger obstacle to Littlefinger's plan of adding Winterfell to his acquisitions of power (Harrenhal, The Eyrie) is Sansa herself. The books only ever hint at Sansa's growing confidence and skill at manipulation, but the show has made it much clearer how much she's learned from arguably the best player in the game of thrones. Next week's trailer teased their forthcoming confrontation, where Sansa demands of Littlefinger if he knew who Ramsey was. How that scene plays out should shed light on what Littlefinger's next move is and whether or not he's underestimated Sansa.
Fire and Blood
All season long it seemed as if Daenerys was simply biding her time, waiting for the opportune moment in which to display her power and again win the Dothraki to her cause. That's precisely what happened in 'Book of the Stranger' and in an exhilarating fashion. And there are similarities between her emergence from Drogo's funeral pyre and the burning temple, but it's a testament to the material that this scene comes across as both reminiscent and distinct.
The Daenerys that walked out of the flames last night wasn't simply a season 1 redux, but a woman now fully in control of her destiny. She did not need Jorah and Daario to save her, though their timely arrival sped things along. She did not need to make allies with any of the Dosh Khaleen, though her kindness to the young widow reminds us of her merciful nature. And she did not need to rely on Drogon, who many assumed (myself included) would play a role in her eventual escape. Instead, Dany took what she needed through fire and blood, reminding all those present - and viewers - the power of the last true dragon.
The show has gone ahead and made it abundantly clear Daenerys is "special", even among Targaryens since immunity to fire isn't exactly a family trait. In fact, in the books Daenerys' immunity to flame is meant as a one time, very circumstantial kind of thing, but Game of Thrones has used multiple scenes in where she remains unburnt to further cement her uniqueness - just as last night's miraculous survival cemented her as a god to the Dothraki.
And while this change has irked some book readers, her continued immunity to fire is a shorthand for series, reminding viewers of what already know - Daenerys isn't an ordinary woman. This has her in a very good position in the running to be Azor Ahai, because while Melisandre believes she's found her messiah in Jon - a character who may very well be half-Targaryen - she has yet to meet Daenerys. And it's only getting harder to argue that a woman who gave "birth" to dragons and remains unfazed by searing hot flames isn't the prince who was promised.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘The Door’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: