In “The House of Black and White,” the second episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, viewers got a lot of what they missed in the first episode. Namely an update on everyone’s favorite teenage future serial killer Arya Stark (played by the rapidly aging Maisie Williams). More importantly, this week’s episode is an exploration of what it means to be a leader in Westeros. Some leaders are patient and seen as weak, others take actions that threaten to split apart their kingdom and one is even thrust into an unexpected place of leadership.
Thanks to this episode, we know for sure that leadership in the wide world of Westeros is anything but Black and White.
What follows is a discussion of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 2 and all its events. It does not include spoilers from later episodes of the show, nor does it contain book spoilers. That said, some of the insight used is informed by the books. Should you pass below Walter White Walker, Lord of Spoilers, you may be subject to mostly astute analysis and spoilers for this week’s episode.
“I never said I was going alone.”
Before we get to Arya, Jon and Dany, let’s talk about the most underrated development in this season’s off-book changes. The addition of Dorne is something we knew heading into the season thanks to casting, location announcements and set photos. We’re headed off to meet the rest of the late Oberyn Martell’s eccentric family, many of whom have a renewed sense of hate for the Lannisters after the death of their Prince. If left to a faithful adaptation of the books this story would have been (a) boring and (b) likely cut out because of said boringness. But the show’s creators seem to have an interest in Dorne and all the colorful characters that inhabit it, so they’ve created a new plot that solves a bunch of other problems.
Problem 1: Jaime is better when he’s away from Cersei.
Problem 2: With Tyrion on the run, there’s nothing for the show to do with Ser Bronn.
This new storyline, in which Jaime will embark upon a dangerous mission to rescue his daughter Myrcella (who was shipped off to wed a Dornish prince by Tyrion in season 2) with the assistance of Bronn, is the best possible scenario for fixing both of these issues. With “The Adventures of Jaime and Bronn,” we are no doubt going to get some of the season’s best banter and thanks to the nefarious nature of their quest and its most dangerous setting, this will likely be a source of great violence. This episode is filled with wonderful deviations from George R.R. Martin’s books, this being the best of them all.
Case in point: “Jaime fuckin’ Lannister.”
“Remove yourself from my path or I’ll take that long axe and…”
Our first official trip to Dorne is a short, but important one. We are reintroduced to Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), who was recently relieved of her lover Oberyn. She’s clearly still not happy about the situation as she watches Princess Myrcella (still alive but recast with Nell Tiger Free) frolicking in the gorgeous Water Gardens with Prince Trystane (Toby Sebastian). He’s the son of Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig), who we meet shortly thereafter.
The confrontation between Ellaria and Doran is brief and spirited, with mention of the season’s oncoming wrecking ball of a trio (the Sand Snakes) and some brilliant expressive work from all involved, most notably the “do you want me to go kill that bitch?” look given to Doran by his bodyguard Areo Hotah (Deobia Oparei). It’s hard not to hope that he gets to use that axe sooner than later.
It may seem like a simple introductory scene, but when we unpack this brief trip to Dorne there’s a lot happening. The first is that we now know who sent Cersei the little package from earlier in the episode. It seems to have been done without the blessing of Dorne’s ruler. Instead, Ellaria (and from the sound of it, the Sand Snakes – aka Oberyn’s daughters) are at odds with their prince. Doran is a patient, calculating leader who knows that war might not be the answer. He is broken up about the death of his brother, but he’s not going to start cutting Myrcella to pieces. Because as Oberyn explained last season, “we do not hurt little girls in Dorne.”
That still seems to be true, unless Ellaria has something to say about it.
“A man is no one. That is what a girl must become.”
Now that we’ve talked about all of my favorite things from the episode (Bronn is going to Dorne!), let’s talk about what is undoubtedly going to be the fan favorite sequence of this episode: Arya has made it to Braavos. Thanks to the highest rated Uber driver in Essos, Arya has made it quickly and safely to The House of Black and White where she expects to find her buddy Jaqen H’gar and begin a murderous buddy quest of her own. Only for season 5 Arya, things aren’t going to be that simple. She’s still got her kill list, which is interesting for a number of reasons. One is that either Arya doesn’t care about Tywin anymore or news in Westeros and Essos travels extremely fast, because at one point he was on the list. Same goes for the mute Royal Executioner Ilyn Payne, who as far as we know is still alive. The easy way to write this off is that Arya is still a kid and A.D.D. is a thing. The more nuanced explanation is that it fits into my season 5 mantra: Efficiency is Coming. Keeping Arya’s list simple keeps the audience focused on who the real bad guys are. Namely Cersei.
We also (eventually) get the reintroduction of Jaqen H’gar, once again played by Tom Wlaschiha. This is yet another nice diversion from the books, as the books have Arya meeting a different character at The House of Black and White. This will help keep things familiar as Arya’s story moves forward. For a show that has lost so many great characters over the years, it is very important for them to keep around some familiar faces. The likes of Jaqen (and Bronn) have become fan favorites because of their show-based construction. This is what gives those of us with book knowledge faith in David Benioff and Dan Weiss: everything they’ve changed thus far in season 5 has been a dramatic improvement over the problematic fourth and fifth books in Martin’s series.
Beyond the Jaqen reveal, not a lot happens for Arya just yet, so we’ll have to stay tuned.
“He’s the commander we turned to when the night was darkest.”
Our weekly check-in at The Wall (if I were a betting man, I’d say that every single episode will have both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in it) includes this week’s most under-the-radar huge thing that happened. Sure the Dany stuff (mentioned below) is potentially more alluring, but Jon just became the new Lord Commander of the Nights Watch after deciding to turn down Stannis’ offer to make him Lord of Winterfell!
Let’s break this down: Jon Snow just chose to uphold his vows and stay in a dangerous position (as Ser Davos noted in episode one, not every man in The Nights Watch is a fan of his) rather than joining the fight alongside Stannis and avenging his brother Robb. Then he is rewarded with the highest position of leadership in The Nights Watch thanks to Samwell Tarly’s finest moment outside of killing a White Walker (those jabs at Lord Janos hiding with the women and children were next-level for Sam).
What does this mean for Jon going forward? He’s still in a very dangerous spot with the men he now leads. He’s also still in a complicated relationship with Stannis, who he has now both disobeyed (by killing Mance) and refused. We are only really getting to know how Stannis is as a King, mostly because he’s spent much of the show’s time on the losing end of things, but he doesn’t strike me as the kind of leader who is going to just and move on.
The happenings at The Wall are just getting good.
“The law is the law.”
The happenings in Meereen are also stealthily getting good, as well. Just as Jon Snow is ascending to a position of leadership where he will undoubtedly learn some tough lessons, Dany is in the midst of learning tough lessons of her own. This week’s events only reinforce the idea that she can’t control Meereen. She doesn’t have the use of her dragons, her army is clearly unsuited for urban pacification and the newest member of her council just murdered a prisoner before his trial. As Barriston warns her, she’s in a position where rash power moves may do more harm than good.
The execution of Mossador, a character mostly constructed for show’s purposes (though he shares a name with Missendei’s brother in the books), tears at the show’s white savior theme that was controversial last season. No longer is Dany the deity-esque Mysha of the slaves, she’s now the target of (a profoundly coordinated chorus of) hisses and some thrown rocks. Her actions as queen – the disregard for tradition and a very black and white interpretation of law and order – is causing more than civil unrest, it threatens to tear apart the very fabric of her occupation of Meereen.
This raises interesting questions for Dany. It gives her problems that will make her storyline interesting. How will she keep Meereen under control? At what point does she leave Meereen and set forth on her real journey to take back the Iron Throne? If she leaves, what becomes of the slaver cities she has “set free” with her army of Unsullied?
By the end of this episode, much of Dany’s story has intensified. Her status as a Queen of Destiny seems to be in question. Then right before those final credits, we’re reminded that Dany still does possess the Deux Ex Machina of Westeros: her big ass dragon.
If there’s one big thing we’ve learned this week it’s that our favorite characters still have a lot to learn in season 5. Jon and Dany are in uncharted territory as leaders, Brienne and Pod need to find something useful to do, Arya is going to “become no one,” which is vague and terrifying, and Jaime needs to have a buddy trip with Bronn to redeem himself as a father.
Two episodes in and we’re still seeing a lot of setup. But it’s important setup. As Game of Thrones pushes further and further into the darkness, it’s important that the show continue to find good narrative devices that explain everything that is to come, especially when they don’t have the books to fall back on. This season isn’t going to be black and white in its faith to Martin’s story. Like its many beloved characters, we the audience are also going to have to embrace the grey.
Until next week, our watch continues…
Related Topics: Game of Thrones