GAME OF THRONES: “The House of Black and White”

In which Arya gets her first look at Braavos, we get our first look at Dorne, and everyone is reminded that being in charge actually kinda sucks.

People follow leaders. They will never follow us — they find us repulsive.

–Varys

*I* find us repulsive.

–Tyrion

In each one of the six locations Thrones swings by this week, like a surly dragon joy-flying from Essos to the Wall and back again, one particular point gets repeatedly made: whether you’ve come by your power honestly, inherited it, bought it, or usurped it, you’re marked. There’s no decision you can make that will please everyone, and behind a corner — you’ll have to figure out which one — there’s someone lurking with a dagger. Time and again in “The House of Black and White,” leaders face impossible decisions. The line between what is right and what is popular becomes ever fuzzier, but even the wisest choice doesn’t immunize you from a fickle mob, personal vendettas, or rejection from those you’re trying to help.

When we last saw Arya Stark, she had decided to remove herself from the game completely. It’s her semester abroad, and now her coin and Valyrian call-and-response have brought her to Braavos, where the sight (and horn) of their glorious Titan statue briefly startles her, but she’s not afraid. And why would she be? Braavos is GORGEOUS — like Venice, but with Florence’s architecture. (You can almost taste that HBO money.) It’s even got its own theme music! With everyone Arya ever cared about assumed dead, this is finally her moment. She knocks on the door of the aptly-named House of Black and White. “Valar Morghulis!” She says cheerfully to the sour-looking doorman, like he’s supposed to lower the ladder to their treehouse, but she doesn’t get the reaction she’s looking for. No, there’s no Jaqen H’ghar here. Begone, little girl. “But I have nowhere else to go!” she cries. “You have everywhere else to go.” Slam. Well, that didn’t go as planned.

I mean, Arya’s come this far — what is she going to do, give up? No way! She sits on the steps all night, in the rain, repeating her list of names (down to Cersei, Walder Frey, the Mountain, and Meryn Trant)…and then she gives up, tossing the coin into the canal. But just when she gets bored of slicing off pigeon heads and is about to pick a fight with a trio of ne’er-do-wells, the doorman returns. If at this point you thought to yourself, “Hmm, I bet that’s our old pal Jaqen,” a man would be correct. Though he’s not calling himself that anymore — “Who are you, then?” Arya asks. “No one. And that is what a girl must become.” A recapper is very excited for the continuing adventures of ARYA: CHILD ASSASSIN.

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The week’s other new location is sunny Dorne, which — like Braavos — seems like a much better place to settle down than King’s Landing or any of these other crapholes. (The Thrones team shot the Dorne scenes in Spain, and the result is sublime.) Only a brief scene at the Water Gardens this week, but we meet Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig), one of the season’s big additions: the ruler of Dorne, and wheelchair-bound older brother of the late, hot-headed Oberyn.

Ellaria Sand, last seen screaming her head off at the sight of the Red Viper’s busted melon (right there with you, El), has had enough of seeing Cersei’s precious daughter Myrcella “skipping” around the gardens, enjoying herself. She wants to send the princess back to her mother in pieces. But Doran urges caution, and patience, even though it is only making him look weak and ineffective. “The whole country would have you go to war,” Ellaria seethes. “Then we are lucky the whole country does not decide,” is the quiet reply. Unknowingly echoing his brother, Doran adds that they “do not mutilate little girls for vengeance” in Dorne. Not while he rules, anyway. Is he as feeble as Ms. Sand and the Snakes (Oberyn’s bastard daughters, who we have yet to meet) think, or is he playing a longer game?

Ellaria leaves in disgust, her blood as hot as their Dornish food, and she’s not the only would-be adviser walking out on their leader this week. Cersei, in her infinite wisdom, has stacked Tommen’s small council with enough sycophants — feckless Mace Tyrell as the new Master of Coin, weirdo Qyburn the new Master of Whispers, as Pycelle quivers with rage — to alienate her uncle, Kevan. He pushes back against her regency, partially because she’s a woman, but also because she’s a paranoid, vindictive day drinker. “I do not recognize your authority to say what is and isn’t my concern,” he growls when Cersei orders him to fall in line. Then, with the mic dropped, he peaces out.

Cersei is fine with this, though. He was the last tie to her father’s reign, and now she’s got free run of King’s Landing, with an army of lickspittles at her command. She’s got dudes FedEx-ing her dwarf heads, hoping to earn her good graces. She can’t even get mad that the head’s not Tyrion’s, because at least there’s one less dwarf in the world. And Qyburn thinks the head “may still be of use” to him, and NO ONE HAS ANY PROBLEMS WITH THIS?

Jamie would, if he knew. Instead, he’s doing what he thinks is the honorable thing, and volunteering to go to Dorne and take back Myrcella (which is, it must be said, a better plan than the “burn down all their cities” Cersei’s offering).  And — praise the Seven — he’s pulled Bronn out of narrative purgatory, where he’s spent the off-season whispering meaningless nothings to his lackwit fiancee, Lollys Stokeworth. (“Meanness comes around?” That’s the best you can do?) Good news, Bronn! You won’t need to murder any heiresses for a crappy castle — Jamie’s promising a better deal. Come out to the coast, have a few laughs! It’s another Thrones buddy road comedy.


Speaking of buddy road comedies, Tyrion’s still grumpy. Sure, he’s in a much larger box now, and actually has Varys for company instead of just on waste disposal duty, but his spirits have not improved. They’ve got an entire continent to cross before they reach Daenerys — first stop, Volantis — but they’ve got to do it under cover, with Cersei’s minions out chopping off the heads of every dwarf they see.  “Are we really going to spend the entire journey talking about the futility of everything?” Varys complains about Tyrion’s complaining. “You’re right, no point.” (Heh.) This Targaryen girl better be worth it, they’re both thinking…

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But, uh, is she? Dany, please have a seat. It’s time for an intervention. Look, I get it — you feel you have to get Meereen, this city that you barged into with no concept of its traditions or political ecosystem, under control before you’ll be worthy of ruling Westeros. Let’s just talk for a minute about how that’s going. Your occupying force is being cut down in the streets, and you’re ill-equipped to fight back; every decision you make is going to turn half the city against you; your tickets to fame are either chained up in a dungeon like petulant teenagers, or roaming the countryside, roasting everything he comes across. Even when Drogon bothers to grace you with his majestic presence, he has to remind you who really controls who. (GO TO YOUR ROOM, DROGON! CURFEW IS 10 PM!) Now you’ve just executed a slave YOU freed in full view of the entire city, and you’re surprised at the poll numbers? (Or the hissing?)

I’m sorry, Dany. Maybe you’re just not good at this. Operation Meereenese Freedom is now a quagmire, and if you don’t get out post-haste, you’ll die. Or at least kill any interest I had in your storyline. Varys is going to take one look at the situation and get back in his box.  No, you’re not your father, who in his madness lit up Ned Stark’s dad and brother with wildfire, but there comes a time when more wisdom and nuance is required than “the law is the law!” You’re not Lawrence in the Nefud Desert — you’re Mhysa, champion of the lower class, and you’re appealing to them with logic? Meereen might as well be Mars for all the preparation it’ll give you. Alas, poor Mossador; we never knew him.

For good or for ill, Tyrion and Varys are headed her way, so at least we have one connection between heretofore distant characters to look forward to. Another we finally made last night — it turns out that Sansa and Littlefinger passing by Brienne in the season premiere wasn’t a cruel cosmic joke, as she and Pod come across the Lord Protector of the Vale and his niece in a tavern. Brienne, bless her heart, immediately barrels in and pledges her sword to a (not unfairly) skeptical Sansa. Littlefinger tosses some sick burns her way: aren’t both of her previous employers dead, one with her there in the room? (No, he doesn’t subscribe to that “shadow with a face story,” because no one would if they’ve never seen magic firsthand.) “Why would I want someone with your history of failure?” Brienne appeals to Sansa directly, but like with her sister, is summarily rejected.

Pod would like to suggest that Brienne shouldn’t consider herself bound to her oath anymore, if even the Stark girls aren’t interested in her service, but our Lady of Tarth is nothing if not stubborn. Some Oathkeeper stabby-stabby and a Forest of Endor-inspired chase later (“Podrick? You can stand now.”), she’s still committed to following Sansa to wherever Littlefinger takes her next. When has obstinate dedication to a sworn vow steered anyone wrong?


Hang on, don’t answer that. Let’s wrap things up once again at the Wall, where Jon Snow has just been offered The Thing He’s Wanted His Entire Life…and passed on it. Stannis is annoyed at how Jon took Mance out of his misery last week, but not so much that he won’t engage in a little realpolitik: it’s true, the Free Folk will never follow him, but it seems the North won’t either. The Mormonts of Bear Island, among others, have replied to his calls for troops with basically “No thanks, we only follow the Starks.” But guess what, there just so happens to be a Stark right here who, with a stroke of Stannis’s kingly pen, can claim Winterfell and the North in his name! As long as we’ve known Jon, he’s wrapped his entire identity around being a bastard, but all he has to do is take off his blacks and bend the knee to Stannis, and that can be wiped away. Even Sam thinks this is a great idea, but Jon? Jon’s going to refuse, because of course he will.

Not that I don’t see his side of it — he swore an oath, after all, and has worked too hard and invested too much in the Night’s Watch and the assimilation of the wildlings to leave now, even for Winterfell. But even though Jon is legitimately turning into a good leader (and Kit Harington becoming a better actor), it’s a selfish decision on his part. The Seven Kingdoms are burning all around him, and Jon won’t step up and do the one thing that could help restore peace? Many of your Night’s Watch brothers don’t even like you, Jon. It’s not like they’re going to elect you Lord Commander, right?

Well, hold that thought too. Because at the big election, once Janos Slynt (sing it with me: “The wooooooooorst!”) stumps for Thorne and some other guy nominates some other old guy — okay, it’s Denys Mallister, but he’s new to the show — Sam’s got something to say. First, he expertly roasts Slynt for hiding in the storage room during the battle, then he makes the case for Jon: he infiltrated the wildlings, took out the mutineers, and held Castle Black against Mance’s army. Jeor Mormont himself must have seen something in Jon when he made him his steward, “and now we’ve all seen it, too. He may be young, but he’s the commander we turned to when the night seemed darkest.” Jon looks visibly uncomfortable, but many of the men cheer. Not even Thorne’s typical suspicion can stem the tide, and it’s a delighted Maester Aemon who casts the deciding vote. Gentlemen, meet your 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch! How will Stannis take it, now that Jon’s gone and basically done the exact opposite of what he wanted?

Oh, yeah — and we’re still talking about Shireen’s greyscale, for some reason. Don’t let it be said there’s never a wasted moment on Thrones. (I know, I know, oh, oh, oh…)

Next week: Ravens! Punching! And the Boltons make the return that I’m SURE you have eagerly awaiting!


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