“The House of Black and White”
I confess, I broke and watched this episode a day early. But I have a good excuse – my back went out and I’ve been basically bedridden with nothing to do. That makes it even harder to resist jumping right into 43 and 44 – but resist I shall.
Also making it harder was just how good this episode was. I really love Game of Thrones when it’s in this mode – taking time telling a story, savouring long conversations between two of these magnificent actors. We already know GoT is going to quickly enough revert back to the style that’s increasingly dominated it – the actors involved in multiple storylines (especially Theon/Ramsay/Sansa) have promised events that will shock even book readers. But episodes like this one prove the series doesn’t need shock to deliver the awe.
After a somewhat surprising absence in the season premiere, one of the emerging stars of the HBO version starts off the episode as we catch up with Arya. She’s arrived in Bravos (in a suitably sweeping bit of CGI) and dropped at the gates of the House of Black and White. This is one of the locations book readers have anxiously been waiting for (that’s a theme of this episode), and while Arya makes a pretty low-key entry into the season it doesn’t disappoint. The reveal of Jaqen H’ghar at the end of the episode will certainly raise some eyebrows among new viewers, but it’s merely the introduction to what should be a very interesting arc.
The other surviving Stark Sister, Sansa (alliteration for ten points) continues her spiral away from her ASoIaF arc. The big headline here: last week’s tease wasn’t just Brienne torture, D & D actually let Brienne meet up with Sansa (thanks to Podrick recognising Littlefinger at a tavern). It still ends up being torture in the end, though, as yet another Stark turns down Brienne’s protection. Read into this what you will – perhaps the TV Sansa has come to trust Littlefinger, or at least see him as her best hope of survival. Brienne really is a bit of a tragic character by now – only Pod is loyal to her, but Brienne is resolutely loyal to her vow (even if, as Pod suggests, circumstances have effectively released her from it). With the news that she plans to follow Sansa and Baelish, I’m seriously worried for Brienne and her eventual fate.
Another complete change is Jaime’s arc, and this continues as we find out (as has been reported in the press for months) that he’s going to Dorne to rescue Myrcella. And for company in this mission he chooses Bronn, which while completely original does make a lot of sense. Born is well along in his scheme to become a two-bit noble by marrying Lollys, but Jaime isn’t giving him any choice in the matter – with one hand he shows Bronn the carrot, and with the other the stick (which for Jaime is a neat trick).
Dorne is another one of those locations fans of the books have been waiting to see, and I’d say the Water Gardens look just about as I’d imagined them. Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) sure doesn’t – Siddig is a(nother) terrific actor but could hardly be more physically different than the Prince Doran Martin describes. There are some other things shifted around here too, but the fundamental dynamic seems the same – Doran would rather avoid war and refuses to use Myrcella as a weapon against the Lannisters, and Oberyn’s daughters the Sand Snakes seek their revenge, whatever the cost. I won’t say more, but this is the beginning of a huge story arc, at least if GoT follows ASoIaF’s template. And with Jaime added to the Dorne mix, it seems certain that it will be a major thread.
Danerys almost never seems to get a week off, but here storyline this week was better than usual. I like seeing the moral and ethical – and political – nightmare she faces play out in terms as stark as it did this week. Ser Berristan is many things, but not least of them is consistent – he believes what he believes and says it (which isn’t the sort of person that tends to fare well in this mythology). I really enjoyed seeing him bluntly shatter Danerys’ illusions about her father and the “lies” told about him. Dany, as usual, manages to get just about every decision wrong – but yet another “liberated” country turning on her is hardly news. Dragon returning? Now that’s news – though he just sticks around for a sniff and then flies off into the night.
That my favourite scene of the episode involved Varys and Tyrion is no surprise – these two actors are magnificent, and a clear case where the TV versions are even better than the book’s (Charles Dance’s Tywin being another). It’s just one scene, Tyrion and Varys in a carriage holding a conversation, but it’s mesmerising. Varys talks of the “boxes” people like he and Tyrion invariably build around themselves – and how people like them are never truly satisfied being in the box. In a world dominated by truly evil bastards and those too naive and noble for their own good, I wonder if Tyrion and Varys are the Goldilocks of this cast – callow and cynical enough to see the world as it is, but too decent at-heart to stand by and watch it burn (and freeze).
A quick word about Kevan Lannister, another of those characters who seems to be in that ethical sweet spot but one who hasn’t gotten much play. It was easy to forget Kevan even existed these last couple of seasons, but he announces his presence in a big way here – declining to dance at the end of his niece’s puppet strings. In a word (or two) I would describe Kevan as an unsung hero – the quiet sort who’s never directly in the spotlight but always seems to say or do the right thing.
And finally, we have The Wall – which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite locations. It’s a major player in “A Dance With Dragons” and one thread where GoT has stayed relatively close to the source chronologically speaking (though certainly not in other ways). But we absolutely zoom through the “Election Arc” – Togashi GoT isn’t, showing little interest in the political machinations that Martin unspooled in fascinating fashion in ADWD. Still, there are some great moments here – Sam mustering his courage to speak the truth about what happened in the darkest hours for this Nights’ Watch, and Aemon’s tie-breaking vote. But it seems to me that rushing through these events – in addition to disappointing the political junkie in me – undersells the sheer magnitude of what Jon was turning down in refusing Stannis’ offer. That was a character-defining moment, and it feels to me as if it should have commanded a little more focus.