Daenerys Targaryen walked though fire. Sansa Stark and her long-lost half-brother reunited. Cersei Lannister laid the groundwork for her revenge. And yet the most important scene in Game of Thrones’ “The Book of the Stranger” took place not in Vaes Dothrak or at Castle Black or in King’s Landing but in Meereen, where Tyrion and Varys are engaged in the less glamorous but nonetheless vital process of figuring out what to do with power once you’ve got it. As Hamilton puts it, winning is easy: Governing’s harder.
While they’re leading us to a much-speculated-upon reveal about a certain character’s parentage, this season’s Tower of Joy flashbacks have shown us that the stories of Ned Stark’s heroism have been inflated for posterity: While legend has it that he defeated Ser Arthur Dayne himself, Bran’s vision shows us Ned defeated and nearly killed, saved only by the intervention of his loyal sideman, Howland Reed. Ned does technically strike the killing blow, but it’s a cold-blooded execution and comes only after the Sword of the Morning has been stabbed in the back. Unfettered glory is for storybooks: Real victories are not always clean, or even honorable.
With Sansa’s encouragement, Jon Snow is once again gathering his forces to take back Winterfell and the north, and with her immolation of the Dothraki khals and miraculous survival, Daenerys seems poised to marshal an army of her own, both of which will be needed to defeat the pending invasion of the white walkers. But Game of Thrones is already looking past that inevitably victory—the surprise extinction of the human race seems a bridge too far even for George R.R. Martin—to what happens next. Who will rule Westeros when the dust has cleared and, more importantly, how?
Enter Tyrion Lannister. With Daenerys still absent, he has been forced to fill the vacuum of power in Meereen, and though he is, by his own token, no mother of dragons, he’s proving more adept at governance than she ever was. The insurgency funded by the region’s slave states has been temporarily quelled, but he knows the cessation of hostilities is only temporary. (We learn later in the episode that the Wise Masters of Yunkai have tried to buy Daenerys from the Dothraki; one doubts their plan is to return her unharmed.) So in the tradition of reformers everywhere, he cuts a deal, appealing to the slavers’ self-interest rather than their morality. They will have seven years to phase out slavery rather than abolishing it at once, and they’ll be compensated for the loss of their (ahem) property. When they object to the potential disruption of their “way of life”—i.e., their business—Tyrion points out that he was born in a country where slavery has been abolished for hundreds of years, and he’s richer than any of them. In other words, he reassures them, they’ll still be able to exploit their workers, even if they don’t own them. “There have always been those with wealth and power and those with nothing,” he says. “I’m not here to change the way of the world.” (It’s particularly fitting that this episode aired after ads for HBO’s All the Way, which chronicles LBJ’s attempt to sell the Civil Rights Act to the former slave states.)
Daniel Sackheim, who directed “The Book of the Stranger,” lingers on shots of Missandei and Grey Worm, both former slaves, as Tyrion cuts his dirty bargain. He’s assured them that he feels their pain, having been sold into slavery himself, but Missandei brings him up short when she points out there’s a huge difference between being sold into bondage and being born into it: “How many days were you a slave?” (In essence, Tyrion is the rich kid in Pulp’s “Common People” who thinks that a few months of slumming it is enough to understand what it means to be poor.) Peter Dinklage lets us sense that Tyrion is disgusted, too: When he tells his ostensible allies, “Let us sail on the tide of freedom, rather than being drowned by it,” you can almost feel him choking back vomit.
And yet, what choice does he have? Tyrion has no answer when Missandei calls him on his personal knowledge of slavery, but Grey Worm likewise comes up short when he suggests fighting the slavers, and Tyrion shoots back, “That’s the military approach. How has that worked, here in Meereen?” Tyrion still doesn’t understand the local culture, as his awkward command of Valyrian continually makes clear. (“Large sorry you wait so fat time.”) But he does speak the language of greed, and he knows that self-interest can be trusted where enlightenment fails to take hold. Tyrion’s not the person to keep the white walkers from storming the Wall, but he might be the one to rebuild the world once it’s been saved.