People in distress often start fires. It’s an easy way to attract a rescue party. When Daenerys Targaryen ignites that blaze in Vaes Dothrak during the awesome final moments of “Book of the Stranger,” she achieves the opposite effect: She announces to the Dothraki, and to those watching at home, that she is no damsel and certainly does not need two men — Ser Jorah and Daario, specifically — to break her out of any Dosh Khaleen prison, thank you very much.
No, our Mother of Dragons has another plan. She comes before those awful Dothraki leaders — who insult her, undermine her, and in Game of Thrones tradition, threaten to rape her — and bluntly announces: “You are small men. None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will.”
It’s such a wonderfully simple phrase: “I am. So I will.” Coming from a woman, and spoken in the face of such misogyny and hatred, it is a gloriously feminist pronouncement — so much so that by the time I am done writing this recap, if not sooner, I feel confident that someone will have created a Hillary Clinton meme that borrows the exact phrase. The fact that Daenerys follows up on that promise by starting a fire faster than you can download a 1984 Drew Barrymore movie, or, if you prefer, a ’90s electronica hit by the Prodigy, makes the moment even more of a jaw-dropper. For Game of Thrones fans, it’s one hell of a pot-stirrer.
Since we’ve previously seen Daenerys emerge unscathed by fire, there has been some debate about whether she is immune to it, a notion that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has dismissed. Per a 1999 interview with the author: “TARGARYENS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO FIRE! The birth of Dany’s dragons was unique, magical, [wondrous], a miracle. She is called The Unburnt because she walked into the flames and lived. But her brother sure as hell wasn’t immune to that molten gold.”
However, when her brother got Goldschlägered back in season one, Daenerys did say, “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.” This leaves two options: Either she inherited inflammability from her dragons, or she is a dragon of sorts herself. This debate will undoubtedly continue on Reddit, Game of Thrones–related Slack channels, and at your monthly meeting of the Song of Ice and Fire book club, where the same five books have now been analyzed a dozen times. Finish soon, George!
In any case, the Dothraki people immediately bow to Daenerys like a god. Following Jon Snow’s resurrection, it marks the second time we’ve seen a character take on Christ-like qualities this season. With Daenerys especially, it’s tempting to see her emergence before all those devotees — naked, for reasons that didn’t seem entirely necessary — as an example of white-savior syndrome. But when considering the Dothraki story line within the context of everything else that happens in this episode, Game of Thrones seems to loudly convey something else: that those who have previously been oppressed may be most motivated to triumph over tyranny — and therefore, they may be best equipped. They say the meek shall inherit the Earth. Maybe they’ll inherit the known world, too.
In other words, Daenerys isn’t the only one starting fires. At the end of the previous episode, it seemed like Jon Snow was on his way out of Castle Black, but that was a dumb assumption to make. Obviously he couldn’t just leave. He needed to pack first. And thank God he did, because that allowed Sansa and Jon to joyfully reunite for the first time since they departed Winterfell. Honestly, it was so pleasant to see these two sip soup and reminisce about the old days that I would have been totally fine if the rest of this episode had devolved into some weird Game of Thrones/Gilmore Girls hybrid in which Jon and Sansa bonded while eating way too much Chinese food and watching Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story. That didn’t happen, of course, because Sansa Stark has her eyes as fixated on the prize as Daenerys Targeryn does on hers.
“Winterfell is ours, and Arya’s and Bran’s and Rickon’s, wherever they are,” she tells Jon. “It belongs to our family. We have to fight for it.” Jon hesitates, but she’s adamant: “If you don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe. I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
“I’ll do it myself if I have to” sounds an awful lot like “I am. So I will.” Jon will no doubt play a leadership role in any fight against the Boltons, but Sansa is clearly the instigator and real heart behind any coming war. When Jon starts to read that horrible hate-crime of a letter from Ramsay Bolton, he refuses to keep going when he gets to the part about what Ramsay — Slitter of Throats, Peeler of Apples — plans to do to Sansa and Rickon. But she has no such qualms. She snatches the letter and unflinchingly shares the gory details aloud to reiterate her point: “A monster has taken our home and our brother. We have to go back to Winterfell and save them both.”
Can you imagine the privileged, Joffrey-crazy Sansa of season one doing or saying any of this? I can’t. But Sansa has not only matured, she’s suffered — first because of Joffrey and to an even greater extent because of Ramsay. Her suffering has driven her to fight for Winterfell, the same way, perhaps, that years of taking orders from Viserys primed Daenerys to stop taking shit from men who lack the steel she possesses. (The good news for Sansa and Jon is that, even though their army wouldn’t match Ramsay’s in size, it sounds like they may be getting some help from Petyr Baelish, who calls upon Robin Arryn to gather the Vale and rush to Sansa’s aid.)
Theon Greyjoy, another person who also understands what it means to be tortured by Ramsay Bolton, maps out his own plan of attack. Instead of expressing interest in becoming king, he advocates for his sister, Yara, to assume control of the Iron Islands. It’s a case of a once-oppressed man helping a member of an often-oppressed gender attempt to seize power. The arrogant, power-mad Theon of a few seasons ago would never have made such a suggestion. Because he has been beaten-down and disenfranchised — which is a tremendously mild way to put it — he is finally able to see Yara’s skills as a leader.
Then there’s all that business over in King’s Landing, where Cersei, Jaime, Olenna, and Kevan Lannister are cooking up a plot to bump off the High Sparrow. Once again, a woman, Cersei, instigates the plan. She has a host of reasons — revenge is surely one of them — but Cersei genuinely seems to want Queen Margaery to avoid a walk of shame like the one she endured. If Cersei hadn’t felt the sting of all those hurled insults and hocked loogies as she walked naked through the streets, would she be so determined to help Margaery? Probably not. She tells Tommen that it doesn’t matter whether she likes Margaery or not. She is the queen; she must command respect. Cersei understands, like no one else can, how much respect will be lost if she’s forced to be punished in this way.
(Sidenote: I am, however, skeptical that this High Sparrow murder plot will go off as planned. During her conversation with the High Sparrow, Margaery appear to be drawn in by his words, much like Tommen was in last week’s episode. Even the image of the two of them, framed at one point so that Margaery is almost, but not quite, tucked underneath the same doorway arch as the Sparrow, suggests they may be growing closer than it seems.)
More than any other development in this episode, what happens in Meereen tells us how important it is for leaders to relate to their people, especially the downtrodden. Tyrion, attempting to keep things under control in Daenerys’s absence, engages in peace talks with the slave masters and (seemingly) convinces them to agree to no longer support the Sons of the Harpy and end slavery … over a seven-year period. (Seven is a sacred number in Game of Thrones, but perhaps this is also a biblical reference? In Exodus, it says, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.”)
Both Grey Worm and Missandei clearly think, “What the hell, little white man?” when Tyrion makes this agreement, and they become even more conflicted when they have to defend Tyrion’s decision to their fellow brethren. Tyrion is like a walking ball of white privilege in “Book of the Stranger,” insisting that he understands what it’s like to be in chains because he, too, was in prison — you know, for a little while — and telling Missandei that seven years isn’t such a long time to wait for slavery to end. “Seven years is not a short time if you’re a slave,” she curtly replies. Peter Dinklage’s British accent lands extra-thick in this episode. At first, I thought it was just an accident. By episode’s end, it seemed like an intentional, brilliant choice.
Tyrion opposes slavery, but he doesn’t feel a sense of urgency around the issue. He may know what it’s like to be belittled, but he has no idea what it’s like to live by the whims of a master. How could he? In different ways and under different circumstances, Daenerys, Sansa, and Theon do. They are the ones — along with some not-exactly-enslaved Lannisters — who are pushing Game of Thrones to some potentially explosive places. They are fit to do it. And so, it seems, they will.