A lot happened in “Book of The Stranger,” and not just in terms of plot advancement and character development. I think with this episode we saw the show runners commenting on contemporary events and coming to grips with the show’s own somewhat troubled racial politics, as well as bringing to the fore some thematic elements that are intrinsic to the fact that George R.R. Martin is a late 20th/early 21st-century leftist American storyteller.
I am referring specifically to the sequences in Meereen and Vaes Dorthrak. I believe that both of these sequences — Tyrion’s negotiations with the slavers and Daenerys’ conquest of the Dothraki — are intended to make us feel uncomfortable. And they largely succeed in this, despite a few narrative inconsistencies.
The scene with Tyrion, Grey Worm, Missandei and the slavers — and later the freedmen of Meereen — is essentially a study in privilege. Tyrion is trying to make peace with the slavers by offering them enough time to phase out slavery and replace it with some other, unspecified, arrangement. This makes sense to him from his position of privilege — he’s a lifelong aristocrat, after all — but for people like Grey Worm and Missandei, who have been at the business end of slavery all their lives, it’s a morally reprehensible and unacceptable solution. You can see their visceral discomfort and anger as Tyrion first proposes this deal and then offers the services of a group of prostitutes to seal it. They’re being asked to bring nuance into a situation that isn’t’ nuanced at all — slavery is unambiguously wrong, and they aren’t happy at all at any sort of compromise with the slavers.
And Grey Worm is right — in the absence of Dany and her dragons, the slavers will betray Tyrion’s negotiated peace. Tyrion can’t see this, because from his privileged position, slavery — despite the fact that he wants to see it abolished as well — is just another position to be bargained over. His pragmatism is only possible because of his privilege. And in trying to compromise with the slavers, he is invalidating the lived experience of Missandei, Grey Worm, and every other slave, and denying them their full humanity at the same time.
The parallels to current events in our world are almost too obvious to state here. I think this is the show trying to first, answer some criticism about its own problematic racial politics; second, commenting on real-world issues; and third, allowing some of Martin’s deeper thematic material — which is far more prevalent in the novels — to bubble to the surface.
This comes out in Dany’s final scene as well. If we set aside a few details — like, how did that whole temple go up in flames like that so quickly? Did somebody douse the place in oil? How were all these mighty Khals suddenly herded into a corner where they couldn’t escape? How did the doors fall down just in time for Dany to emerge before she was squashed by a falling beam? If we forget about all of that for a second, it’s clear that — unlike her previous victories — she wasn’t liberating anyone here. She wasn’t righting any wrongs or dispensing any justice. She conquered the Dothraki by murdering their assembled Khals brutally and ruthlessly. The Dothraki outside weren’t kneeling in adulation, they were kneeling in fear.
And here’s why this is a crucial turning point for Dany — she liked it. She liked taking power by fire and blood the way Targaryens always have. One of Martin’s central themes in this story is seeking and attaining power, and what that does to people. Whatever may have been animating Dany’s crusade up to this point, it seems to have been replaced by a conqueror’s will to power.
Now, I mentioned that the show has come under some criticism for its somewhat dubious racial politics — most notably for that scene at the end of Season 3 when Dany is portrayed as this sort of virtuous White Savior being held aloft by these unwashed masses of dark-skinned people. I think the negotiations between Tyrion and the slavers are trying to push back on this criticism a little bit, but we shouldn’t miss the fact that the Dothraki who kneel to Dany at the end of this episode are overwhelmingly people of color. Only now we’re seeing the dark side of foreign conquerors who murder and pillage in the name of spreading so-called “civilization.”
What do you think? Share your thoughts below!