So, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this episode. “The House of Black and White” actually felt much more transitional than last week’s episode, and not really in a good way. While there were some things I liked, as there pretty much always are in this show, I kind of felt like the wheels on this episode were just spinning without really moving things along. As a book reader, I was also really disappointed by one of the few scenes so far this season that drew pretty directly from the source material. Finally, I just don’t think this episode was as thematically cohesive as “The Wars to Come.” I suppose it will work in the context of the entire season, but I can’t help feeling a little let down after last week’s promising beginning.
My full recap and analysis is under the cut, and there will be spoilers for the episode and for some book-related discussion.
The episode picks up with Arya Stark, who was absent from the season opener. Her entrance to Braavos feels a little anti-climactic, however. I liked the shot of the Titan of Braavos from Arya’s perspective, but I found myself a little confused about exactly what kind of mood they are trying to convey with the reintroduction of this setting. So far, all we’ve seen of Braavos is a bank and a brothel when Stannis and Davos were here last season, but now we get to see it through Arya’s eyes and the glimpses we’re given of the city are kind of a confused mess. The Titan is a gateway that Arya passes through on her way to a new life, but it also feels ominous and somewhat less than welcoming. The shots of the dockside market could be interesting, but aside from the oddly strung up watermelons (what even is going on with those?) everything is various shades of mud-colored. The sky is visibly overcast, but there still seems to be a bit more sun than we see anywhere else in the world of the show; however, this doesn’t feel cheery or hopeful, and every shot seems to have an undercurrent of gloomy malaise. This is reinforced when we finally see the House of Black and White which, while fairly close to how it’s described in the books, turns out to look bland as hell on screen. It’s tall and imposing, to be sure, and the wide shot of Arya (who is small to begin with) approaching the building gives us a nice sense of scale and offers an idea of the enormous role this place is going to play in Arya’s story this season, but it just seems a bit, well, blah. When Arya is turned away at the door, I wanted to laugh like she did when she learned her aunt Lysa was dead.
The big problem here, though, is that I never for a moment thought that she wasn’t going to get in eventually. I get the feeling that the writers tried to subvert audience expectations by making us wait a little for the payoff, but I think it was just a waste of precious screen time. By all means, don’t let her in right away; make her wait a little in the rain or whatever. By the time Arya is wandering the streets of Braavos killing pigeons, it just starts to feel like a retread of her experiences in King’s Landing back in season one, and, for me, it undermined the sense of Braavos as a unique or different setting. This might have been intentional–maybe we’re supposed to realise that all cities are essentially the same and maybe the pigeon-killing, confrontation with street kids, and fortuitous rescue are supposed to recall season one scenes–but it doesn’t feel insightful or interesting, and it doesn’t do much to actually move the story along. By the end of Arya’s scenes in this episode, we haven’t even gotten to see inside the doors of the House of Black and White, and this is a disappointment.
Back in Westeros, Brienne and Podrick have managed to wander their way to an inn. While Brienne sulks, Podrick looks around the room and sees Sansa Stark sitting with Peter Baelish in a back corner and surrounded by knights. Sending Podrick out to ready the horses (even though they only have one, which he points out only to have Brienne sneer at him like he’s an idiot), Brienne marches back to Baelish’s table to offer her service to Sansa. It’s been a while since the last time I was this embarrassed for a fictional character. Brienne is clearly out of her league here, and Baelish poisons the well for her pretty much as soon as she introduces herself. Interestingly, Sansa seems less swayed by Littlefinger’s mockery of Brienne than she is by her own memories of seeing Brienne bowing before Joffrey at the Purple Wedding. I liked seeing Sansa showing herself very capable of independent thought, but I hate what is being done with Brienne so far this season.
Last episode, Brienne was cruel and dismissive towards Podrick, and this episode she continues to treat him harshly. I truly despise this particular departure from the books, where Brienne was occasionally rough with Podrick but also felt some responsibility towards him. In the books, she teaches him and trains him to fight, but there is none of that in the show’s portrayal of their relationship.
Mostly, though, I hate how foolish Brienne comes off in her interactions with Sansa and Littlefinger here. There’s not much here that makes sense. Obviously, Brienne isn’t exactly one for subtlety, but why would she just walk right over and introduce herself like this? After her encounter with Arya at the end of season four, why wouldn’t she at least suspect that things might not go smoothly with Sansa either? Especially when Sansa doesn’t exactly look like she’s being held against her will. And why would Brienne run? While Sansa and Littlefinger aren’t exactly traveling incognito, I can’t imagine their whereabouts or purpose are common knowledge, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to risk Brienne rushing off back to King’s Landing to rat them out to the queen, but Littlefinger is also not wasteful. If he’d wanted to have Brienne killed, I think he would have had it done outright. If he just wanted to keep Brienne where he could keep an eye on her, then it would have been in Brienne’s interest to join him and Sansa, and that would have given her an opportunity to earn Sansa’s trust through loyal service. It might not have been an ideal situation, but it would have at least put Brienne in a position to fulfill her oath to Catelyn. Instead of anything that makes sense, we get a chase scene as Brienne and Podrick flee. There’s an incongruously slap-sticky bit where Podrick’s horse tosses him off into the river, and Brienne kills some guys. Then she expresses a determination to follow Sansa and Littlefinger, who have resumed their journey.
Speaking of Sansa and Littlefinger’s journey, I’m convinced they are headed for Winterfell, which makes me incredibly worried for Sansa. Before Brienne rudely interrupted them, Littlefinger tells Sansa that his marriage proposal has been accepted, and all I can think of is that it’s Sansa’s marriage that he’s talking about and it’s a marriage to Ramsay Bolton. Iwan Rheon (Ramsay), Alfie Allen (Theon), and Sophie Turner (Sansa) have all teased a shocking scene later this season. Rheon and Allen have both hinted that it’s something so awful that Rheon didn’t even want to do it, and Allen recently said that it makes Theon as much of a villain as Ramsay. I’m increasingly certain that the scene they are talking about is Ramsay’s wedding night in A Dance With Dragons, where he has Theon prepare Jeyne Poole as fake!Sansa for the consummation of the marriage. All I can say is that I really, really hope that I’m wrong, because I will absolutely lose my shit if that happens.
In King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime receive a threat from Dorne, where their daughter Myrcella is betrothed to Trystane Martell. Jaime decides he’s going to Dorne to bring Myrcella back, but he won’t be going alone.
Cut to Bronn walking along a beach with his betrothed, Lollys Stokeworth. Right as Bronn is hatching a plan to off Lollys’s older sister, Jaime shows up to throw a wrench in things. Bronn won’t be marrying Lollys after all. Instead, he’ll be accompanying Jaime “as far south as south goes.”
And, finally, we get our first view of Dorne. Black-clad Ellaria Sand, in a shot that recalls Cersei’s spying on Tommen and Margaery, is watching Myrcella and (presumably) Prince Trystane flirting in the Water Gardens. I love this parallel so much, and making these kinds of visual connections between characters and events is something that Game of Thrones sometimes does remarkably well. Unlike Cersei, however, Ellaria has someone to keep her in check: Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell. By the end of Ellaria and Doran’s conversation, no one is happy, but it also seems obvious that both Ellaria and Doran have plans. The question that will be answered over the rest of this season will be whose plans work first and best.
I was kind of devastated when I learned that the show wouldn’t be casting Arianne Martell, but the more I think about it the more I think that omitting Arianne and expanding Ellaria’s role is a smart move for the series. Including Dorne already means introducing several new characters–Doran, Trystane, new Myrcella, Areo Hotah, the Sand Snakes–and keeping Ellaria gives us a familiar face in the new setting. It also means making more use of the wonderful Indira Varma, who would have been wasted if she’d disappeared from the narrative on the show the way that Ellaria did in the books. Ellaria’s revenge motivation makes a lot more sense for the show as well, since it looks as if they are cutting most (if not all) of the Dorne-Targaryen marriage/alliance plot that appeared in the books. As fascinating as I found all that to be on the page, I think it would just have ended up being a convoluted mess if they’d tried it on the show. I would have loved to see Arianne on the show, but at this point I’m content to see how things play out with Ellaria filling that role in the story.
In Meereen, Grey Worm and Daario are hunting Sons of the Harpy. They bring him to Daenerys, which triggers… an argument between her counselors. The freed slave, Mossador, argues that they should simply execute the man and continue to root out the Sons of the Harpy. Daario seems to share this opinion. Hizdahr is disingenuous about the whole situation–”I don’t know this, and I’m the head of a great family” is his response when Mossador insists that “everyone knows” the great families pay poor men to do their dirty work. Ser Barristan argues that they should do nothing with the man until he is given a trial. Daenerys paces back and forth, uncertain of how to please everyone. Finally she gives up and dismisses them all, but Barristan stays behind to tell her about her father, the Mad King. When Daenerys insists that the stories of her father are lies told by her enemies, Barristan disabuses her of this notion, warning her of the dangers of ruling too brutally and reminding her of the value of following a rule of law even when it may seem inconvenient. This, finally, convinces her to hold a trial for the captured man.
Elsewhere, Tyrion and Varys are on their way to Meereen via Volantis. Tyrion is really sticking to his liquid diet, and he’s chafing at staying holed up in another “fucking box,” but Varys informs him that Cersei has offered a lordship to the man who brings her Tyrion’s head. We get a singularly ugly moment as Tyrion suggests that Cersei “ought to offer her cunt,” a line that I, personally could have done without, especially since the writers don’t seem to intend that we’re supposed to think badly of Tyrion for this little piece of misogyny. That said, this scene does contain this season’s (so far) funniest joke. When Varys asks Tyrion if they are “really going to spend the entire ride to Volantis talking about the futility of everything,” Tyrion replies, “You’re right, no point.” Very clever, writers.
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei is receiving dwarf heads. Apparently, if Cersei doesn’t want them, Qyburn will take them for use in his “work.” Creepy Qyburn.
And now it’s off to a Small Council meeting. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, and I must say they suffer in the absence of Varys and Littlefinger. Cersei seems determined to arrange the council to suit her own ends, without regard for anything that makes sense. Without Tywin to keep her in line, Cersei is already fucking up left, right and center, and here we see her alienate her uncle, Kevan Lannister, who ought to be a powerful ally for herself and Tommen.
Up at the Wall, Shireen Baratheon is teaching Gilly to read. Apparently, Shireen is a much more patient teacher than Sam, and Gilly is making some progress. We get to learn a little more about the greyscale that has left Shireen disfigured, but I can’t tell if this means that it’s going to be important later on in the show or if the writers just included it to explain what was up with Shireen’s face for people who haven’t read the books. This nice scene is interrupted by Shireen’s mother, Selyse, who has come to warn Shireen away from Gilly, who Selyse suggests could be harboring a vendetta against Stannis for his execution of Mance Rayder. As happy as I am to see more of Shireen, and as delightful as Selyse is in all her Lady Macbeth-ian glory, I’m not sure I see where things are going with this pair. Without Val and the “Wildling prince” and with Mance Rayder already dead for real, it seems like there isn’t a whole lot for Selyse to do at the Wall this season. I’m curious to see where things go, though. I’m wondering if Gilly is going to step into some of the role that Val played in A Dance With Dragons, although with Tormund and some Wildlings already at the Wall, I don’t know what that would look like. It could be that we’re still going to get Sam and Gilly’s journey with Maester Aemon to Braavos and Oldtown, but that doesn’t seem entirely likely, either.
Elsewhere at Castle Black, Stannis is not pleased that Jon Snow killed Mance instead of letting him burn to death. Stannis argues that fear is useful in getting people to follow one. Stannis is far more self-assured than most of the other rulers on the show, and he seems convinced that he has found a balance between acting rightly and lawfully and instilling the right amount and right kind of fear in his followers. With Cersei blundering all over the place in King’s Landing and Daenerys floundering after losing control of her dragons, Stannis’s confidence makes him an attractive prospect as a ruler. All he needs, he informs Jon, is the North, and he offers to legitimize Jon as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell, in exchange for Jon’s help in retaking the Seven Kingdoms.
I liked this scene, but I think this is one place where, even when sticking fairly close to the source material, the show suffers due to its visual format. While Kit Harington is quite a bit more emotive this season than he has been in the past, I don’t think it’s really possible to convey in this medium what Stannis’s offer means to Jon, who as a boy wanted nothing more than to be a legitimate Stark. Even Jon’s admission to Sam that he intends to refuse Stannis’s offer doesn’t really quite get the point across, although I think it comes as close as it could.
And so commences the election of a new Lord Commander for the Night’s Watch. Janos Slynt speaks for Alliser Thorne, which I don’t think does Thorne any favors. Next up, some dude speaks to nominate the elderly Lord Mallister from the Shadow Tower. As Maester Aemon begins to explain the voting process, Sam stands to put forward Jon’s name as well. It’s pretty obvious that the contest is going to be between Jon and Thorne, and Thorne himself stands up to fear monger about Jon Snow’s ties to the Wildlings. When the votes are tallied, they are tied, and Maester Aemon casts the deciding vote in favor of Jon Snow. Although Jon didn’t seem to want the job when Sam first nominated him, he looks gratified when he wins. Thorne and his faction aren’t happy, though.
Even after watching this scene three times, I still can’t help feeling disappointed with it. In the books, this is Sam Tarly’s crowning achievement and a major sign of his growth as a character, and it’s a pretty big deal as he manipulates the men of the Night’s Watch to support Jon Snow as a compromise candidate. I understand the need to truncate this storyline, but I think it ends up really anti-climactic here. While the show did mention the upcoming election a couple of times before this episode, I don’t think they really managed to convey the enormity of the event and what it means for Jon and for the Night’s Watch. That said, I’m also not sure how they could have done it better. All the backrooms politicking and build-up that we got in the books would have been boring and frustrating in a tv show without the benefit of the close 3rd person point of views in Sam and Jon’s chapters. Also, while this sequence might have been disappointing in comparison to the books, it did a better job of moving along the actually story than most of the other stuff that happened in this episode.
The episode ends back in Meereen, where Mossador has taken it upon himself to kill the imprisoned Son of the Harpy before Daenerys can bring him to trial. This puts her in the position of having to punish a respected community leader instead of simply dealing with a terrorist, and she fucks up bad. After Mossador confesses to murdering the prisoner, Daenerys has him executed in front of the whole city, even as an enormous crowd pleads for her to have mercy. In her desire to look strong, she succeeds not in making her new people fear her but in making them angry as hell.
After a rough day of causing fighting in the streets of her city, Daenerys goes out on the balcony of her pyramid, where she finds Drogon, who is now enormous. Just as she seems to think he has returned to her, though, he flies away again and she’s left alone to ponder the consequences of her enormous fuck-up.