Game of Thrones: The House of Black and White Review

The next episode of Game of Thrones Season 5 brings us Arya Stark, Dorne, and a beheading! We discuss it all...

They really grow up so fast, don’t they?

After being disappointingly absent from the Game of Thrones season five premiere, Arya Stark makes her grand entrance in “The House of Black and White,” which continues to show the state of upheaval that the series is in. If last week was about the biggest emerging power players for a new era, this episode is centered on establishing the second generation of Game of Thrones characters as a major force going forward. Without equivocation, all of the “children” for the first time are showing genuine agency (for better or worse) in a series they previously had been forced to survive or adapt to. Now, other characters (and shifting changes to the book’s narrative) are bending the knee to their wills. And if it is as strong as tonight’s episode tended to be, I’ll also take the knee.

This was announced clearly when the hour opened on Arya Stark finishing her long boat ride to Braavos by passing underneath the Titan of Braavos. Much like the Colossus of Rhodes from our ancient world, this monument to victory hovers over Braavos, which certainly seems to be one of the most cosmopolitan of Essos’ cities.

We have glimpsed Braavos before in season four when Davos and Stannis went to beg for the Iron Bank’s support, however this feels like a real homecoming for Arya Stark of sorts, and we get to see her new city in all its grandeur. No, it s not Winterfell, but arguably Arya’s two most important mentors, Syrio Forel and Jaqen H’ghar, hailed from this city, which appears to have reached the Renaissance before Westeros. Obviously modeled after the canals of Venice, Braavos is a port city that offers terrific new set design from the series, and plenty of distractions. But apparently one diversion, above all else, they pay tribute to.

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The titular House of Black and White is separated from the canals on its own little island. It is here that Arya is both introduced and rejected by a kindly man that displays less than indifference to H’ghar’s iron medallion. But Arya is no longer the scarled little girl who fled King’s Landing once upon a time. After years on the road with such sweet companions as Tywin Lannister and the Hound, she proves to make short work of the indigenous youth culture in Braavos, proving to be the sociopathic killer we all love. Indeed, “Nothing’s worth anything to dead men” is the line of the night.

Perhaps just as impressed with Arya’s dead-inside, soulless delivery, the Kindly Man reveals himself to be the Man that speaks in third person. Apparently, he no longer wishes to be called Jaqen H’ghar, but we’re going to continue calling him that anyway! Jaqen welcomes Arya with her coin into the House of Black and White, and she has begun her journey toward becoming an assassin.

In recent times’ geek culture, the little girl assassin has become something of an eye-rolling staple (Kill Bill, Kick-Ass, Hanna, any anime ever), but the reason it works so well with Arya is that for four seasons, we have watched her lose everything. There is not a sense of irony or humor about her transformation into a killer, nor does it seem fantastically enviable. Personally, it is a true tragedy that a girl who came from a loving family has now been hallowed out so cruelly by the world that she thinks becoming murderer-for-hire is her only option.

I love Arya becoming an assassin, because it is not what I want to happen. I wish she did get that ship up to the Wall and was reunited with Jon Snow. Arya may have been a tomboy who did not deserve to be “domesticated,” but seeing arguably Ned Stark’s favorite child be told she must strip away her entire identity, because it is the only thing left for her, is as heartbreaking as it is badass.

Her sister meanwhile is now making choices for the first time in her life, and they are taking her in a very different direction. Indeed, she appears to be homeward bound.

When Brienne and Podrick just happen to stop at the same inn that Sansa Stark and Littlefinger frequented, I admit that I felt the massive contrivance of television writing at work. Granted, George R.R. Martin used such a coincidence himself when he had Catelyn Stark and Tyrion bump into one another in the same King’s Road tavern. But the difference is Catelyn was not looking for Tyrion during that unintended run-in.

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Nonetheless, it is a small quibble since it opens up terrific new story possibilities that no fan of the show, reader or TV-only enthusiast alike, could predict. Much like when Brienne meets Arya, the Lady of Tarth finds a Stark girl who does not want her help. It’s really hard to convince a Stark you’re a friend with Lannister gold on.

I am not entirely certain that Sansa made the wrong choice in this instance. While Brienne and Podrick are right to later deduce Petyr Baelish is the least safe of traveling companions, Petyr is also putting her in a position that I suspect will take her back to the North, much like Brienne has in mind. And while Brienne is the most honorable person left on the series, she would likely take Sansa to her brother at the Wall, as opposed to her ancestral home—and power.

Whatever the case might be, Sansa is making her own decisions for herself. They may get her into as much trouble as all the victimization she suffered for seasons two through four, but at least it isn’t because of Joffrey, Cersei, or Lysa that she might end up staring down the proverbial Moon Door.

Besides, it also invites a terrific action sequence where Brienne and Podrick kill men of the Vale, and decide to follow Sansa and Littlefinger from a distance. For anyone who has read A Feast for Crows, they know that perhaps the biggest flaw in the entire series is that Brienne and Podrick aimlessly wander around the riverlands for many, many chapters, vainly searching for Sansa—who we know from the latter’s POV chapters that she’s still safely in the Vale. The early convergence of these plots into something new is almost as exciting as the prospect of Tyrion reaching Meereen.

On a special aside, for long-time fans of the series, it is remarkable how the budget has grown for horse wrangling sequences. In the early seasons, famous scenes in the books had to be changed due to a lack of budget for including horses (such as Joffrey’s riot incitement in season two, as well as Tyrion’s cavalry charge at the Battle of the Blackwater being changed to a sneak attack from a sewer). In season five, they’re including horse chases like it’s just a part of any other episode.

Other small ones whose influence we feel without ever even seeing them are the Sand Snakes. Unless, you have paid attention to every bit of pre-season press materials (or listened very carefully to all of Prince Oberyn’s dialogue in season four), you might have missed who the Sand Snakes are this week, but they’re the off-screen bastard daughters of the Red Viper. And they’re all for blood after the Mountain turned their papa’s skull into a Gallagher punch line. They are also backing Ellaria Sand.

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Personally, I am very pleased that they have brought Ellaria back in such a major way. First of all, you do not hire a Rome alumni like Indira Varma just to essentially write her out the next season. I know some book fans will be annoyed that Ellaria is taking on the attributes of Arianne Martell (the sister of Oberyn and Doran in A Feast for Crows), but the same thirst for vengeance and scheming is present and more than welcome.

Indeed, speaking of production values, shooting in the Alcázar of Seville (a Moorish castle from the 12th century) as our “Water Gardens” is a remarkable feat for making Doran immediately ingratiating after only a few minutes. Other than Oberyn, we knew little of Dorne at this point on the show, but between the lusciously realized locale and a fantastic actor like Alexander Siddig playing the part of Prince Doran, they feel like they’ve been off-screen plotting the whole time…which they have been.

The Martells are the only family (thanks to their desert stronghold) that the Targaryens could never break. Hence holding the distinction of still using titles like “prince” and “country.” And it is one of Martin’s best bits of plotting that for three books (and now four seasons), we saw all the major families of Westeros, save for one. It is like a curtain is being dropped, and what has been discovered could be season five’s greatest asset.

For example, Dorne’s reach has already stretched to King’s Landing where the life of Myrcella Baratheon has been threatened by a snake (perhaps of the sand, variety?) with the young girl’s necklace in its mouth. This is most obviously a message from Oberyn’s bastards to the Queen Mother since Doran already has announced for the viewer that he will not butcher a child like Myrcella.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

However, Cersei is the kind of paranoid monarch who this week refused to allow her young son to have a Hand of the King, appointing herself essentially to the position as Queen Regent. In her craving for power, she also alienated the one strong mind on her Small Council, Kevan Lannister, by insulting him and refusing to allow him to see the king. No, Cersei would rather be surrounded by sycophantic Dr. Frankenstein types like Qyburn and the perpetually useless Grand Maester Pycelle. And that is when she isn’t actively encouraging the mass murder of dwarves across the world to satisfy her bloodlust for Tyrion.

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So, when confronted with a genuine threat to her family, she truly goes ballistic—and is curiously helpless. It falls on Jaime Lannister, whose rift with Cersei grows ever wider, to bring Myrcella home in a not-so-diplomatic secret mission to Dorne. And he is bringing along Bronn.

This is news worth celebrating! Aye, the second best line of the night belongs to Bronn as he enjoys the new castle and wife that Cersei delivered to him for not defending the Imp. Betrayal has its perks since he is only one sister-in-law murder away from being a real lord. And this is crystallized when Bronn delivers the complete antithesis of the series’ intent and purpose by coddling his fiancée with the kind of fairy tale bunk that even Sansa has long put away next to her father’s doll.

“You know what I think? I think you’re a good person, and your sister’s a mean person. I’ve been all over the world, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s meanness comes around. People like your sister always get what’s coming to them. Eventually. One way or another…”

The amount of patronizing bemusement Bronn is spinning as he heavily implies his intended murder of his bride-to-be’s sister is the kind of humor that makes him such great company for the Brothers Lannister. And ever since Joffrey died, the snarky witticisms have long been absent from both Jaime and Tyrion. Ergo, it’s glorious to see such cynicism rear its ugly head in the shape of Bronn of the Blackwater. My only hope is that Bronn brings such dripping disdain out of Jaime on their road trip together. It certainly could offset any earnestness at the Wall.

Such earnestness after all is what keeps Jon Snow away from Stannis’ amazing offer. The entire saga stood at a massive crossroads when Jon Snow got the offer to become Jon Stark. All he would have to do is bend the knee to Stannis, and he would rise a Stark with the entire North falling in behind him. But alas, Jon is his father’s son (biological or not). Jon’s own honor would damn him to be a brother of the Night’s Watch, which if he did not get out of his own way meant serving a humiliating shift under the command of a hateful Lord Commander Thorne. Just as Ned sealed his fate by warning Cersei, so too might Jon be sealing his own if not for the much more politically savvy…Samwell Tarly?

It’s nice to know someone has learned a thing or two about swift maneuvering over the last four seasons, even if it wasn’t the one who spent time around kings like Mance and Stannis. Seeing that Alliser Thorne is a hair’s breath from commanding the Night’s Watch, Sam gives a stump speech akin to Walt Disney’s version of 19th century Americana on Jon Snow’s behalf, and a bit less than 50 percent of the Night’s Watch (at least at Castle Black) rallies to the cause. Given that there were three candidates, and Jon tied with Ser Alliser, the only reason that Jon became Lord Commander is the decisive vote of Maester Aemon.

This is a crucial scene for several reasons. The first is that Jon Snow’s foolish honor turned out to be a virtue, because Sam got the only crow truly aware of the danger posed by White Walkers to command the watch. Thus, Jon Snow’s rejection of Stannis and Winterfell is not in total vain. But also undeniable is that almost half of the Night’s Watch voted against Jon Snow because he is a “Wildling lover.” A crow who mourns a girl kissed by fire separately and beyond the Wall, and who shows mercy to her dying king. Jon has the Wall, but he does not have a majority of support or trust for it.

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Far to the east, many other children are growing up too. Despite calling herself both “Mother of Dragons” and “Mhysa” to all of her freed slaves, Daenerys Targaryen is proving to not able to nurture either when they come of age.

This is brought bitterly to the fore when she decides (rightly) to have a public trial for blatantly guilty man—measure her execution with a sense of justice. But this killer of an Unsullied and Son of the Harpy is denied that trial by being murdered by a former Meereenese slave who fought valiantly for Dany in the conquest of the city, and who now sits on her Small Council.

While the Silver Queen’s council is a bit suspect since it already includes Hizdahr zo Loraq, a rich man that Dany has publicly loathed and whose father she executed, the fact that one of her “children” has acted in such a way undercuts her governance far more than any mistake she has recently made. But Dany’s reaction was still ill-advised. Executing the man responsible to ensure that her law remains enforced was a painful necessity, but to turn it into a public shaming of the former ally in front of all of Meereen reeks of her attempting to humiliate her children—and they resist. Like a mom that tried to send teenagers to their room, Mhysa is surprised when rocks and seething hisses are the response to her commands.

In many ways, she is repeating the mistakes of Robb Stark, who also was placed in a similar situation where he had to execute Karstark to maintain a peace with the Freys (for all the good it did him). On that day, Robb Stark lost much of his love and became “the King who lost the North.” Well, for fans who want Dany to be their savior in the absence of a boy-king hero from Winterfell, you might get more of a Stark than you bargained for. Except, Dany made the execution a spectacle (like everything else she does), and much like her growing dragons, she seems stunned that they could possibly react negatively to their mother.

This is encompassed by a fitting final moment when Drogon returns to her all grown up. She attempts to pet the golden child, the apple of her eye, and he flies off. Like Arya, Sansa, and the rest of the second generation “kids” on Game of Thrones, Drogon will do what he wants now. The insulated ruling class of characters better learn that about their “children,” blood-related or otherwise. Even Daenerys Targaryen, alone on her balcony.

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4 out of 5