As the writers choose what to keep and what to throw out from the books of Ice and Fire, the aptly named “House of Black and White” presents our favorite and least favorite characters with opposing choices. Jon Snow must choose whether to achieve his dream of being an honest-to-gods Stark or abide by his oath and remain in the Watch. Cersei has to decide whether to keep Myrcella in Dorne or risk a war in getting her back (her choice is a predictable one). Daenerys must either side with her “children,” the freed slaves, or uphold the justice she righteously wields in Meereen.
We open on Arya, her boat from the Season 4 finale finally reaching Braavos. When they sail through the legs of the massive statue at Braavos’ entrance and a horn marks their arrival, the captain urges her to not be afraid. Arya responds with the cool determination we’ve come to expect from her – “I’m not afraid.” As they row towards the House of Black and White, a solitary stone structure with two doors, one black and one white, Arya is left alone. At this point she’s one of the youngest protagonists Thrones has to offer, and she’s also the only one to truly be going it alone. A hooded figure opens the huge doors, and when Arya asks after Jaqen H’ghar, the gatekeeper shuts the door in her face. But Arya doesn’t give up. She sits on the steps of the grand entrance, repeats her prayer of all the men and women deserving her vengeance and heads to the town, to continue going at it on her own.
Back with Brienne and Pod, they set up shop at a tavern on the road – and pay off a passing moment from last episode (that I didn’t believe would be addressed this soon) by running into Littlefinger and Sansa. Littlefinger, as expected, plays Brienne’s story against her as if reading off a 1.5 star review of Brienne’s Oath Keeping Service on Yelp: “Terrible. This woman swore to protect King Renly and Catelyn Stark and now they’re both dead. Also her sidekick just kind of looks at his feet the whole time. #shadowmonster #eyeroll.” To the director’s credit, Brienne faces Littlefinger’s escorts like the start of a standoff in the old west. Unfortunately, she can’t take them, so she rushes to escape. After losing the enemies on her tail, she catches a glimpse of Littlefinger and Sansa galloping away before rushing to save Podrick from certain doom. But even after getting refused by a second Stark girl, she still holds to her promise – she will rescue these Stark girls whether they want it or not.
I’ll admit, seeing this non-book moment so early this season was a bit of a surprise, but this scene seems like the final nail in Lady Stoneheart’s coffin – I’d been hoping that the show’s creative team was bluffing and that we would still get some sort of Stoneheart appearance, but this covers Stoneheart’s role in the story – challenging Brienne’s purpose and forcing her to choose a side, Lannister or Stark. On the other hand, cutting to the chase and giving us a Sansa and Brienne meeting means that the showrunners have other, unexpected plans in mind for Brienne’s journey which is equally exciting. Hopefully the execution pays off.
**END SPOILER TIME**
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei shows Jaime her box – an ornate gift from Dorne featuring the head of a snake with Myrcella’s necklace in its mouth. As Cersei describes the contents of the gift, you know she’s snuck a peek before showing it to Jaime – which is pretty vindictive – she’ll put the snake-headed-box back together just so she can get a good yell in at him. But Jaime, who’s proving to be a bit more malleable than in the books, promises Cersei that he’ll forego marching with an army to Dorne by going there and bringing the girl back himself. We know that their daughter’s life is at stake, but it’s interesting to see Jaime flip-flop more in the show. When he returned several seasons ago, handless, he seemed on his way out-of-love with Cersei. Although he did go and free Tyrion from certain death, he now seems like he’s actively trying to appease Cersei and make their relationship work. I’m sure the writers aim to keep Jaime complicated, but it muddles his arc by making him sympathetic in one season only to have him backtrack and go full steam ahead with Cersei in the next. The character of Jaime wants to have his cake and eat it to, and it robs him of a more satisfying redemption.
Yet, I am sure as hell looking forward to the Jaime and Bronn teamup. Bronn has an amusing conversation with his bride-to-be, in which he indulges her Westerosi version of the movie Bridesmaids and gives her what could be another big prophecy for the series. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that meanness comes around. People like your sister, they always get what’s coming to them…one way or another.” Then Jaime shows up and asks him to join his mission to rescue Myrcella. This reunion could be the biggest twist so far this season: Dorne might become just as interesting as the northern kingdoms.
Speaking of Dorne, the girlfriend of Oberyn Martell – who’s head was given the Cuisinart treatment last season – skulks around her tower figuring out ways to punish Lannisters. Particularly, Myrcella. Perched on her terrace, she watches Myrcella flirt with the young prince of Dorne much like the way Lysa spied on Littlefinger and Sansa last season – before getting pushed out the moon door. These Dornish are a pissed off people. They live in a dry desert and they’re hotheaded as hell, so if I were the Lannisters, I would be worried too. But Oberyn’s handicapped older brother, Prince Doran seems to be more reasonable, he doesn’t want to risk a war, he doesn’t want to hurt a child and he wants to keep both the Lannisters and the Dornish happy – not an easy task. By refusing to act on Oberyn’s death, he could lose the faith of his people. In the water gardens, Myrcella’s bright blond hair and light pink dress make her stand out like a burning powder keg (or a fugitive dwarf), strolling right past Ellaria and Doran’s field of vision.
Tensions are still high in Meereen, as well, with Daenerys’ loyal soldiers seeking out the Sons of the Harpy. Daenerys looks to execute swift justice against those who want the freed slaves back in chains. After capturing the Harpy who killed last episode’s unsullied victim, Daenerys sides with those who want him killed. Ser Barristan Selmy, Meereen’s Mr. Rogers and resident voice of reason, steps in and brings up her father, the Mad King. His majesty burned men alive and had their family watch, he saw traitors everywhere and killed them accordingly – but look where it got him. It’s the kick in the tunic that Dany needs – and she offers the Harpy a fair trial. Game of Thrones, as a whole, is particularly withholding of the backstory behind the Mad King’s reign and his subsequent overthrow, so it’s nice to get an appropriate snippet here. It doesn’t feel like a heavy drop of exposition and it gives us just enough to keep our need for the truth alive. Good job, Thrones.
On the road to Meereen, Varys and Tyrion continue their journey to the Dragon Queen now in a giant carriage. Tyrion, tired of being cooped up, longs for a walk but Varys urges him to stay – the price on his head is too large and everyone’s on the lookout for him. Varys, always good for a quote on “power” (“Power is a ladder,” “Power is a bologna sandwich,” these people can make a “power” metaphor out of a tortellini soup), philosophizes on their love of the game. They may be hated by the ass-kissers in court, but Varys and Tyrion’s hate of these haters keeps them going, plotting, and throning. Society wants these two ugly things kept in a box, but Varys and Tyrion are not satisfied staying in that box for long. This, of course, is all discussed while they’re trapped in a box on wheels, headed to Daenerys. It’s the perfect contrast to Cersei’s gift from Dorne – she received a box containing a threat. This box on wheels, containing a halfman and a eunuch, could be the gift Daenerys needs to win the war.
We follow this with a “fun” little scene as Cersei inspects the head of a dwarf who isn’t Tyrion. Oops. Qyburn, the twisted Maester with an eye for macabre experiments on the human body, asks to use it for his work and Cersei seems inspired by his desire to become King’s Landing version of Sid from Toy Story. She escorts him to the Council Meeting where she proves she’s more TyLose Lannister than Tywin (deal with it). At the meeting she successfully placates Margaery’s sycophantic father, but alienates her uncle Kevan, the only one on the council who knows what he’s doing.
Cersei’s a bumbler of a politician, she’s more likely to execute a baby than to kiss it, but hey, Jon Snow may yet be the leader we’re looking for. Back at the Wall, Stannis Baratheon has obviously taken a liking to Ned Stark’s bastard son and in his latest powerplay, he’s offered to make Jon a lord of Winterfell, with the Stark surname. It’s too good to pass up, but, as he says to Sam, he cannot break his vow to the Night’s Watch. So Sam instead proposes that Jon be Lord Commander, and a tie vote with thorny Alliser Thorne is broken in Jon’s favor by Maester Aemon. This is a great moment in the books, but I can’t help but wish this were less telegraphed here. Jon knows the minute Sam starts his “best man” speech about Jon’s bravery and talent that he’s about to get nominated for the Icey Awards. He starts shaking his head “no” like he’s just found out the only DVD north of the Wall is the movie North. It’s one of the show’s weaknesses, in that it feels that the writers are afraid the audience will get confused so they tip their hat at the surprise instead of just letting it happen. It’s unfortunate, but it only slightly dulls the satisfaction. Hopefully, Jon will be able to unite the Watch, Stannis’ army, and the Wildlings – but we’ll have to wait and see.
Just across the narrow sea, Arya’s abandoned the House of Black and White and takes to lopping off the heads of street pigeons, like any well-adjusted orphan. When a band of street toughs threaten her for her sword, Needle, she stands her ground but the appearance of the House’s doorman finally scares them off. The gatekeeper’s face seems neutral enough, but he has a worldliness to him – he’s seen a lot – that could be perceived as threatening. He leads Arya back to the entrance and reveals himself to be Jaqen H’ghar, another moment that’s not exactly stated in the books. Could he also be Syrio Forel (for those who are keeping track)? Only time will tell, but as the show’s mystical elements can still rely on practical effects and simple reveals like this one, Game of Thrones still has a feel of base reality to it that can keep fans of both high fantasies and realistic stories pleased at the same time.
Once we return to Daenerys, things aren’t looking good. She oversees the public execution of the former slave who murdered the guilty Harpy, but her idea of justice is met with hisses from her “children”. The freed slaves and the masters engage in mob violence while Daenerys and her entourage flee to the palace. It’s a well-directed moment that places the stakes of this execution, the weight it holds on both the slavers and free men, and the utter deflation of Daenerys’ power into perspective. This queen who works hard to puff out her chest and project the power of dragons, is forced to cower and flee.
Defeated, she retires alone to her quarters. It’s the first time in a while that she doesn’t share a scene with another human and, as if on cue, Drogon comes back. Unlike his scaly siblings, Drogon lands quietly on her rooftop and greets her in the most professional way a dragon could. It seems like he knows she’s in a rough spot and offers his snout for support. She reaches for him needing validation, but before they touch, Drogon flies away and doesn’t look back. Could this be the last time they see each other? Has Daenerys turned her back on Westeros for too long? The return of Drogon, in another spectactular visual sequence, keeps Daenerys and the audience in a state of unnerved unknowing. All we know is, things don’t look good.
“The House of Black and White” gets 5.5 out of 7 kingdoms. Not as satisfying as the opener but never betraying the quality we expect from a GOT episode. It moves us further ahead and provides some satisfying steps forward for characters in need, like Jon and Arya. We also get a straightforward introduction to Dorne, easing the audience into a subplot that doesn’t burden the bloated narrative, and it keeps up the pace set in the first episode. The writers are generally making the right moves, I only wish they’d wear more of a poker face when playing them.
We're still chugging along slowly while the pieces are moved into place, but The House of Black and White still manages to intrigue and entertain in equal measure.