This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. And if you have for any reason seen future episodes of Game of Thrones and choose to discuss them here, I’m giving you to Qyburn, so let’s avoid that, shall we?
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
In last week’s premiere, Game Of Thrones toyed its audience with the possibility of convergence. As Sansa and Littlefinger ride down the road in their carriage, the camera shifts to reveal the area outside the carriage, where we see Brienne and Pod setting up camp for the night.
When I watched that scene, I saw it as a cruel irony: Brienne is scouring Westeros in search of the Stark girls, and after one refused her help the other drove by in a carriage without her even knowing it. I’ve been trained to do this by both the show and the books, which continually promise convergence but delay it for one reason or another. Technically speaking, we could read the books and the series as one long wait for characters—Tyrion and Dany, Dany and Jon, Arya and Sansa, Arya and Nymeria—to meet or be reunited. In some cases, this is simply out of an interest of seeing two characters interact with one another—in others, it is driven by plot development, whether through long-standing mysteries (R+L=J) or through simple mechanisms like Brienne’s search for Sansa Stark.
And so I was legitimately shocked when a simple scene of Brienne and Pod enjoying a meal at an Inn turned from Pod eye-flirting with the serving girl to Pod recognizing Littlefinger and Sansa enjoying their own meal in the back corner. My shock wasn’t simply because this specific event didn’t happen in the books; rather, I was shocked because this type of convergence is something the books and the show have tended to shy away from, and strips away the presumed storytelling mechanism for Brienne and Pod this season. If Sansa Stark is found, what is Brienne’s purpose?
That precise question would appear to be the motivation behind this development. Beyond the scene at the Inn giving the show a jolt with an extended action sequence as Brienne and Pod race away from Littlefinger’s armed guard, the conversation Brienne has with Sansa creates an existential struggle for the character. Sansa becomes the second Stark child to refuse her, and not just because Littlefinger does his best to assassinate her character by recounting the events surrounding Renly’s death (which really does feel like forever ago, doesn’t it?)—Sansa has her own rational reason for distrusting Brienne, given she last saw her bending the knee to Joffrey. While we know that Brienne is trustworthier than Littlefinger, Sansa has no reason to see her in the same light, and Brienne finds herself rejected by the second Stark daughter she promised Catelyn she’d protect.
Pod raises the obvious question, then: if they both refused her service, does she still have a vow? However, Brienne’s vow was never really about Arya and Sansa so much as what they represent, and so their refusal in no way reshapes her goals because doing so would force her to acknowledge that she is a step away from fighting for nothing and no one. If she is not serving Catelyn, whom is she serving? While you could say Jaime, the truth is that Brienne has always defined herself by her mission to serve others, and taking that away from her forces the type of self-reflection the character has resisted. By “resolving” the character’s narrative goals unsuccessfully, the show has rearticulated Brienne’s journey away from finding Sansa, and toward Brienne—if you’ll excuse the cliché—finding herself.
Game of Thrones has always been interested in identity, being as character-focused as it is, but “The House Of Black And White” is particularly invested in the crisis of identity at this point in the story. The changes in Brienne’s storyline emphasize a theme common across most of the show’s characters at this point in Martin’s books, and which plays out in nearly all storylines investigated here. As Tyrion and Varys travel to Meereen—by way of Volantis—the conversation turns to Tyrion’s leadership as the Hand of the King, and Tyrion’s complicated relationship with power; when Selyse interrupts Shireen and Gilly’s conversation about the former’s greyscale, it’s a conversation between a girl defined by her disease and a girl defined by being a “wildling,” regardless of how they might self-identify. Given how much of the show is—for better or worse—characters talking, identity conflict is a key way for the show to draw meaning from those conversations.
However, not all of these conversations happen in episodes that introduce Arya’s arrival in Braavos. Whereas Sansa’s emotional journey has always remained within a stone’s throw of her past, Arya has gone through a much more significant transformation—although they share many of the same tragedies, Arya has remained closer to them. She was at the feet of Baelor when Ned was murdered, and she was at the Twins for the Red Wedding, and she took on a new identity in the wilds of Westeros instead of the comfort of the Eyrie. When Arya boarded that boat to Essos, she was leaving Westeros behind, acknowledging that her journey of self-discovery has reached its limit on the continent.
What Arya discovers in Braavos is not an answer. She thinks she has everything she needs: the boat captain drops her off at the House of Black and White, and she knocks on the door and says “Valar Marghulis” like it’s the clubhouse’s secret password. The man who answers the door has no time for that, though, and neither Jaqen’s name nor his coin get her any further. What he tells her is fuel for the existentialism in other areas of the episode—when Arya explains that she has nowhere else to go, he tells her very plainly: “you have everywhere else to go.”
Arya does not know what to do with this, but that’s the point: when the man we knew as Jaqen H’ghar reveals himself to Arya at the end of the episode, he sets out a clear journey toward an existential self-awareness that transcends the very notion of the self. It’s as philosophical as Game Of Thrones—and, by extension, A Song Of Ice And Fire—will ever get, but the show does a good job of anchoring it in an episode otherwise invested in this question. The idea of becoming “no one” is the goal placed in front of Arya, but it also manifests in Dany’s struggle to eradicate existing identifiers of slave and master in Meereen, as well as Jon navigating both his past identity crisis as a bastard with his current identity crisis as both a man of the Night’s Watch and the Stark Stannis wishes to use in order to take control of the North. Becoming “no one” as a way to self-actualization is a fine goal, but it’s also nearly impossible when you’ve spent your life grappling with the multitudinous reality of humanity, which Arya will be forced to confront alongside the other characters in the weeks to come.
The other element that helps Arya’s storyline from an adaptation perspective is that we are already familiar with “Jaqen.” This change from the books—where Jaqen has never officially reappeared in any form—gives the viewer an anchor in the story, and offers a point of continuity in a story that is primarily Arya and the audience adapting to an entirely new environment. We can see the same principle of adaptation in the episode’s introduction of Dorne, which makes two crucial changes to the books that reorder the Dornish storyline as a continuation rather than an expansion of existing storytelling.
The first comes in the form of Jaime, who faces his own crisis of identity as Cersei shows him Dorne’s threat against the captive Myrcella (whose journey to Dorne was part of Tyrion’s aforementioned leadership). Cersei and Jaime face separate identity crises as it relates to their children: while Cersei is dismissed by Kevan as “the Queen Mother—nothing more” in the midst of his refusal to respect her authority, Jaime is unable to act as a father would in the situation at hand. The (well-speculated upon) secret of their incest means that Jaime cannot be a father, but he seizes the “diplomatic mission” to Dorne as an opportunity to play an active role in her rescue.
There are some procedural challenges with this development as it relates to the function of the Kingsguard, but the show ignores them, and rewrites Bronn’s role in the books in order to bring him along for the ride. What it does is make their trip into Dorne an extension of two existing storylines: Jaime and Bronn’s friendship extending from their training session, and the broader arc of Jaime understanding his own identity in the wake of losing his hand. Whereas the books send Jaime into the Riverlands to clean up the leftovers from the War of the Five Kings, the show smartly uses Jaime’s existing character momentum to look ahead instead of looking back.
The same strategy has been used with the Dornish side of the storyline, as Ellaria Sand has been given a central role in the country’s response to Oberyn’s death. In a scene that features one of Oberyn’s daughters, Obara, in the books, our first glimpse of Dorne comes as Ellaria confronts Prince Doran Martell about what he intends to do in response to her lover’s tragic end at the hands of the Mountain. The transition from Jaime’s line “as far south as south goes” into Ellaria looking out over the Water Gardens draws a meaningful parallel, but it’s between characters we recognize, and who we can map out onto the events of last season. If the transition had been to Doran or Obara instead, the connection would be more difficult, and the exposition necessary to the scene would be forced to be even more blatant to get key relationships across. Rather than all new characters with all new plans to invade King’s Landing, Ellaria’s increased role creates an anchor by which new characters can be defined, and grow alongside her.
Although still spread out across a wide range of storylines, “The House Of Black And White” feels more substantial than the premiere. Some of this comes from the sense of discovery that comes with new territory in Dorne and Braavos, while some comes from more storylines that are directly connected—for example, all of the Dorne scenes form a linear narrative, from Cersei and Jaime’s conversation, to Jaime’s visit to Bronn, and then to Dorne’s Water Gardens. However, it’s also the sense that there is things happening which are unrelated to reminding us what happened last season. Teased last week in minor dialogue at Castle Black, the election for Lord Commander unfolds mid-way through the episode, with Jon being elected after Sam steps forward to speak on his behalf and lays some sick burns on Janos Slynt. And whereas Dany spent last week primarily reacting to events that were out of her control, here she gets to grapple with a specific problem resulting from those events, where she must face two subsequent questions regarding what justice means to the still-divided population of Meereen.
Ending the episode on Dany is an interesting choice. On the one hand, I feel using Arya as a bookend would have been more effective—it’s the storyline that was conspicuously absent in the premiere, and also serves the themes of identity spread throughout the episode. I would imagine the decision to use Dany instead has a lot to do with Drogon’s return, and the place the dragons and the big-budget effects work associated of them has within the series’ cultural footprint (see: the #CatchDrogon game HBO started before the premiere last week). However, Dany’s storyline also benefits from a sense of scale: while she is facing her own existential struggle as a leader, her decisions have a direct impact on an unstable city facing an identity crisis of its own. When she agrees to a fair trial for a Son of the Harpy, she angers one of the former slaves who helped her claim the city to begin with, who she subsequently executes for having disobeyed her original order, which only further exacerbates unrest in the city. Her actions have immediate consequences, something that we wouldn’t necessarily say for Cersei, who is in a similar situation of leadership but in a much more stable environment (at least for the moment).
However, there is poetry to Dany’s rooftop reunion with Drogon, as fleeting as it may be. She senses his presence on that roof, a connection that runs deeper than her connection to the other dragons, or her connection to anyone else around her. It’s a complex relationship, but it’s one that is inside of her, and which she trusts on a level that far outstrips her role as “Mhysa” to the slaves of Meereen. Although the show could have done more to highlight the racial dimensions of what amounts to a white savior narrative, “The House Of Black And White” nonetheless disrupts that narrative by complicating Dany’s ascension, and draws a causal link between Dany’s self-discovery and the fate of Meereen.
Those causal links are crucial to the series’ future, and serve both to connect characters to one another and to connect individual characters to the big picture. While this episode cheats a bit by having storylines connect directly, the show as a whole relies on symbolic ties between characters, which lose meaning if there isn’t a clear sense of cause and effect on the larger fate of this world. Here, we see groups of characters whose choices are framed as intensely personal and tied to their own sense of self, but the impact from those choices plays out on a larger scale, creating a strong launching pad for the “plot” to unfold around them in the weeks to come.
- I’m glad they’re maintaining the gender dynamics of Cersei’s leadership—on the one hand, Kevan’s objections are totally sound given Cersei’s scheming, but the objection is framed in inherently sexist terms, which serve as fuel for Cersei and work to complicate her position on the hero/villain spectrum.
- Glad they shelled out for that introduction to Braavos—compared to other locations, including Dorne, Arya’s boat tour gave us lots of time to get a sense of scale, which will pay off as the character begins to explore the city in future episodes (which will lack the same scale, obviously).
- Opening Credits Watch: Although we get our first glimpse of Dorne, it doesn’t make its credits debut—instead, The Eyrie remains, right before the premiere’s new Bolton-sigiled Winterfell.
- Well, if Shireen’s prominence in the final scene of last week’s premiere wasn’t enough, we get a lengthy discussion of Greyscale here, all but confirming that the show is maintaining that particular focus. Curious to see how it plays out, given that it still feels like Martin hasn’t revealed the point of it in the books.
- The makeup of Cersei’s Small Council is obviously a huge shift from the books, although logically so—whereas the books introduce all new characters, with Cersei resisting Mace Tyrell’s involvement, here it makes sense to use a character we know, albeit in a version that is much more dithering and much less dangerous (a byproduct of Oleanna’s expanded characterization, I would argue).
- That being said, Aurane Waters is technically an at-large concern in the books at this point, and they appear to have shut the door on that playing any important role.
- Maester Aemon’s joy at Sam’s takedown of Janos Slynt combined with his delight at being able to cast the deciding vote for Jon was a lot of fun, although I’m more interested to hear how everyone felt the changes to Jon’s storyline reshaped the nature of his election. He was much more active up to this point in the show, which transformed this into a grassroots campaign with a speech by Sam reminding us of his valor, as opposed to a coup d’état organized by Sam and helped along by a convenient Raven arrival.
- “Jaime Fuckin’ Lannister”—I missed Bronn, and appreciate the show’s willingness to bend over backwards to keep him around.
The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (Only read if you’ve read all of the books or don’t care if you find out what happens in them):
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: So while I’m still pretty sure they would have done it last season if they were going to, the continued focus on Brienne’s vow to Catelyn certainly leaves the door open.
- Mance Rayder Truther Corner: Nothing to report here—we don’t even see Tormund, and so the Wildlings took a back seat to the election.
- Drogon’s appearance would appear to confirm that Dany’s story is heading in the same basic direction as it does in the books, albeit without a Dornish prince being involved.
- The continued presence of Kevan would appear to support the show delivering on the Epilogue to A Dance With Dragons, although its fate is still up in the air.