The battle lines are being drawn in Game of Thrones, not between the Starks and the Lannisters, or between the good guys and the bad guys, but rather between the old and the new. The side of history, of tradition, of the way things have always been, stands poised against the onslaught of the novel and disruptive ideas that threaten to “break the wheel” and introduce a new order. “Book of the Stranger” sets up these conflicts between the past and the future as it darts across Westeros and beyond.
The most obvious and dramatic of these conflicts emerges at the end of the episode. The Dothraki council is another vestige of the type of established, if atrophied thinking that shunts agitators, interlopers, and especially women off to the side in favor of perpetuating the old traditions. But Dany rejects the hidebound Khals and their outdated system in a fiery fashion. She proclaims that they are weak, that they’ve grown complacent and incapable of change. She accuses their “house” of only raiding small villages and lacking the vision or the commitment to truly accomplish something worthwhile.
But Dany does not intend to be so myopic, nor so weak. She topples over the fires that burn in the council’s hut. Her accomplices lock the doors. And the mother of dragons emerges from the flames that destroy her enemies once more. She knows how to earn the respect and admiration of these people; she’s done it before. When she emerges, she carries the banner of a new day, a force more powerful than those who had reigned fat and happy for too long, and the Dothraki who witness this bow down and recognize that a day of change is at hand.
But this grand realization is matched with a small one. Daario and Jorah also represent the young and the old, the traditional and the unabashed. Jorah stays within the rules, attempts his old tricks, and comes up empty, while Daario improvises, colors outside the lines, and keeps the pair out of harm’s way.
I am, admittedly, tired of the romantic element here. Love triangles are passé and the clichéd dialogue between the two of them has little to recommend it. But I like the idea that Daario and Jorah represent two different things – one is young, brash, and impulsive but his methods often carry the day, and the other is a worn but wily old man, who still fights his good fight, but finds himself destined for obsolescence in ways small and large. In the end, however, each of them bows down to Daenerys.
On the other hand, the old vs. new conflicts peppered throughout “Book of the Stranger” are not as simple as the standard good guy vs. bad guy routine. Ramsay, for better or worse, also represents the new. He too is someone who toppled the structures of power (with a little help from dear departed dad) and is the kind of man suited to thrive in the new environment that is taking hold of Westeros. He is ruthless, but not stupid, and it makes him as formidable as he is despicable.
To that end, it’s a shame to lose Osha so soon (who was, once again, incredible in just a brief scene), but the fact that Ramsay learned of her tricks from Theon and reacted accordingly shows that he may be cruel, but he’s rarely a fool. There’s a reason Ramsay’s found himself in charge of Winterfell, and it’s as much a product of his novel methods and his disregard for the typical way of doing things as it is any adherence to the old methods.
Winterfell itself seems destined to be a battleground for the fight between the radical and the traditional. Though they are both quite young, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark represent tradition, and now appear poised to come into conflict with Ramsay. The two siblings both carry Stark blood in their veins, if not the Stark name, and now that they’re together, they represent the last scions of that family known to be alive, with the revelation of another as the notice that draws them back into the fight after having suffered for so long.
Their reunion is a sweet one, that is particularly pleasant after the number of missed Stark connections over the course of the show. Sansa encourages Jon to take back Winterfell, to position himself as the true Warden of the North, who can wrap himself in the mantle of the old ways and convince the old houses to stand and fight with him. Where so much of what’s happened in Westeros lately is about toppling something, Sansa’s goal is to restore something.
But Jon is still tired of fighting, still sick of the futility of the struggle. He tried to break from the old ways, to do something vital and unprecedented, and it got him a knife to the heart. He seems to be done trying to change things. But the news that Ramsay has his little brother changes things too. Sansa draws a line in the sand, and the fight becomes about more than just the old and the new. It becomes about their family.
But that old and the new conflict reaches all corners of the map. In the Eyrie, Lord Royce dotes on the young Lord Arryn, and tries to shield him from the influence of Littlefinger, a common-born man who’s amassed a surprising bit of power. And when the two meet in conflict, it’s Baelish, the interloper who has the upper hand, another sign of the lower-born and iconoclastic rising up and seizing command and influence.
In the same vein, other reunion between brother and sister, which takes place in Pyke, is not nearly as pleasant as the one between Jon and Sansa. Yara, who also hopes to be a nontraditional leader put into power, is suspicious of her brother Theon when he returns just as a power vacuum emerges among the Ironborn. She suspects him of being there to bring a return to the old ways, of the line of male succession that she’s labored under even when Balon’s male heirs were dead or indisposed.
But Theon’s seen too much of the world to want a return to the old ways. He admits that he’s been broken into a thousand pieces, that all he wants to do is help his sister however he can. Yara is another break from tradition, another bit of new blood rising, and she realizes that her brother’s pleas are earnest, and that he intends to help her too start something new in Westeros.
Nowhere in Westeros is this conflict clearer or more pronounced than in King’s Landing, where the heads of the old families set aside their differences in light of their joint enmity for the Sparrows and the threat the religious fanatics pose to their children. Margaery and Lancel and Tommen are the heirs to these august patriarchs and matriarchs. They are the replacements, the ones who are supposed to carry on this way of life into the next age, who are now all under the sway of someone who threatens to upset it.
The High Sparrow cares little for power or position, or at least professes as much. This is, for Cersei, is the most infuriating thing about him. She is accustomed to her position affording her a certain deference, a certain respect, and anything less is a slap in the face to her. She’s shocked that the High Sparrow would dare break from the old order, that anyone would have the temerity to ignore the unquestioned power and privilege she and her kind have amassed over the years.
And in his best scene so far, the High Sparrow acknowledges that he once envied that power. He pursued it, sought it out, worked to enjoy whatever little slices of it he could. Until one day after a particularly lavish bit of hedonism, he stepped back and saw the base, fetid creatures who supped from the same trough he had put on a payments. He realized that beneath their finery and perfumes were base human beings, who sinned and stank like the rest of us. The High Sparrow saw the emptiness of it, of the attempts for the high-born of Westeros to distinguish themselves from their ill-bred counterparts, to try to pretend that the subjects of this land are better or somehow different than one another.
The Stranger represents death among the Seven gods of the Sparrows’ faith. and the High Sparrow’s realization that whether born in gold or in the dirt, the men and women in the high towers and those low birth came from the same place and were headed to the same place. He sees them as cut from the same cloth, and aims to bring them a little closer together.
The High Sparrow, however, isn’t the only man trying to bring two opposite sides closer together. Tyrion’s attempt to balance negotiations among slavers and former slaves is interesting, because he is one of the few characters in the show who straddles the line between the old and the new. He attempts some capitulation in order to bring the slavers and the slaves out of conflict with one another, and finds himself not fully trusted by either.
Tyrion is a man of the old ways, carrying a gilded last name and having long enjoyed the doors it’s opened for him. But he’s also a man who’s felt rejected by that system and the traditions his father represented. He thus fancies himself a man of the people, an agent of change who is of, not simply with, the group he’s representing, even as Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandrei remind him that he is anything but.
Which is why, despite imagining that he has a mandate to make these sorts of deals and offer seven years’ worth of concessions before ending slavery, it feels like a betrayal to the people he represents, even if he means well and thinks it the most effective method to end the practice. As Grey Worm and Missandrei point out, it’s easy to say you sympathize with the enslaved, to trust the masters, to think that some good can come from meeting them halfway, when you’ve only been under their command and cruelty for a single day.
Tyrion does mean well. He thinks he’s doing right by these people, that his compromises may not be palatable, but that they’re the best way forward for Slaver’s Bay. And yet something about his response suggests he’s as naïve about such a pernicious and ingrained practice as Dany was in her own way. The longstanding grand institutions of Westeros and elsewhere cannot be completely ended by pure negotiation any more than they can be wiped out by Dany’s attempt at radical change.
And what’s particularly striking is how Tyrion sucks Grey Worm and Missandrei into his middle ground, whether they want to be there or not. Tyrion appears to have persuaded the masters on the one hand, plying them with promises and women and attempting to use his status as a nobleman to speak their language. When he faces the leaders of the freedmen, however, he might still imagine himself their spokesman, but he calls upon his two associates to give him a type of legitimacy in their eyes that he cannot muster on his own. It’s a legitimacy that Grey Worm and Missandrei don’t even believe in.
More so than nearly any other characters in Game of Thrones, these two former slaves are true victims of the old regime, of the received wisdom and accepted norms that oppressed people like them for centuries. They have seen and felt the horrors that these well-established institutions visit upon the weaker and poorer souls that the High Sparrow speaks of. They know the lengths that the masters, the people who benefit from that system, will go to in order to keep their advantages and preserve their largess; and they have the most reason to be afraid of even the slightest bit of backsliding, of the human cost that takes place when the tide of the new cannot wash away the old in time.
So they look skeptically upon Tyrion’s deal-making. Their queen stands tall in the Dothraki Sea, ready to return from whence she came with an army that suggests she may be far less accepting of Tyrion’s proposed terms. The old and the new seem headed for a clash in Winterfell, as the carpetbaggers kick their feet up and fortify their walls, and the inheritors of the old rulers’ positions plan to retake their homes. And in King’s Landing—the home of the elite cloistered within those under their boot heels—is a powder keg where the forces of the aristocrats are aligned to prevent a popular uprising, one that rejects their superiority, from taking hold. All across Game of Thrones, these clashes between yesterday’s standard bearers and tomorrow’s champions seem imminent, while something far more ancient, and potentially more dangerous than any of it waits beyond The Wall.