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Prophecies and predictions are the rare storytelling tool sharpened by lack of specificity. Ambiguous details about true intentions and dark secrets can only fail to live up to an audience’s wildest imaginings, but a future like the one foretold at the top of Game Of Thrones’ fifth season opens itself up to myriad connections through circular language. The witch’s words are explicit in spots—“The king will have 20 children, and you will have three” refers to Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella’s, er, “unorthodox” paternity—but leave room for interpretation in others.
Considering the chilly glances and private insults volleyed between the houses of Lannister and Tyrell in “The Wars To Come,” the warning of “another” queen who would usurp Cersei draws a direct line to Margaery. But such a connection ignores a truer successor, the one with dragons and infinite infantry who looks a lot more like Cersei in season five’s second week. There’s a bonus thrill in realizing that the witch was also referring to Daenerys Targaryen, who, like the Mother of Madness, was also born to be royalty.
As they order beheadings and preside over tense council meetings this week, Cersei and Dany are presented as two sides of the same iron coin. Their motivations differ, but each winds up exemplifying Game Of Thrones’ own warnings about power. With her father dead, her non-condemned brother on a mission (of her devising), and her son ill-equipped to reign over any subject who isn’t Ser Pounce, Cersei rearranges the Small Council to her advantage in “The House Of Black And White.” Lena Headey strides into the chamber on a cloud of imperious confidence, settles into the Hand’s chair like it was built especially for her, and slyly reshuffles the Seven Kingdoms’ deck. She continues lashing out at the witch’s prophecy, building a wall of alliances between her last living son and his promised golden shroud.
That scene gives an elementary treatment to one of the series’ primary themes, but without absolute power corrupting absolutely, Tyrion and Varys would be riding to Meereen without reason. And without that perspective, they’d find an uninteresting-and-idealized version of their new champion. Backed into a corner by the strengths of her convictions and the realities of justice, Daenerys oversees a city on the brink. Attempting to exercise the type of compromise that was recommended to her last week, she makes a grim pronouncement: Mossador must die. His “KILL THE MASTERS” retaliation may have been just—the man took the life of an Unsullied, after all—but it also skirted the sense of justice Dany wants to instill in Meereen. This too was foreshadowed in “The Wars To Come”: It’s Mossador’s tragic comeuppance for delighting at the line “Angry snakes lash out—makes chopping off their heads that much easier.”
It’s a turning point for Dany’s time in Meereen, if not a turning point for the character overall. She makes a difficult decision, and witnesses the immediate (and bloody) public objection to that decision. It’s a polarizing decision, illustrated by one half of the assembled crowd immediately turning hostile and clashing with the other half of the crowd. “The House Of Black And White” traffics in these sort of right-down-the-middle splits and symmetrical compositions—freed slaves and their former masters, the contrasting doors of the titular structure, Dany’s white gown and Cersei’s black robes—but puts its characters through paces of greater complexity. The prophecy Cersei is futilely swatting away is shaded in gray, and the wrinkles of Mossador’s crime go beyond the “slavers bad, slaves good” stance that took Dany to the top of the great pyramid. Even being a mother is no longer as uncomplicated as it once was: Boy kings require Small Council puppet-mastering; just because Drogon comes back to the nest, it doesn’t mean that he’s going to stand by Dany or obey her. (The dragons are in full-on teen mode this season, aren’t they? “Ew, gross mom: Don’t touch me. Everybody’s looking!”) Pushing the woman who was queen and the woman who would be queen toward (or away from) those conclusions is where “The House Of Black And White” finds its narrative verve.
They’ll soon be joined in the Westerosi Leaders’ Club by Jon Snow, who almost earns an escape from Castle Black this week. But that’s before he’s lifted into the position of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch on the strength of a last-minute write-in campaign. Once more, destiny is at play here, but I can’t be the only one who was hoping Jon would take the other position offered to him in this episode. Concurring with my esteemed colleagues Katie Rife and John Teti, I find a growing tediousness to scenes set among the Night’s Watch, one that might be alleviated by Jon’s installment as its leader. The same tensions will be at play—the old guard won’t want to follow the new guard’s sensitive, brooding, and merciful style of leadership—but here’s hoping Jon’s experience north of The Wall will get this portion of the Game Of Thrones ensemble off the damn Wall with greater frequency.
Because Tyrion’s correct to complain about being stuck in another traveling box: There’s a whole new world to see beyond the established locations glimpsed in “The House Of Black And White.” The episode does some intriguing work with longstanding members of the cast, but its most exciting scenes—beyond the very “speeder bikes on Endor” horse chase involving Littlefinger’s men, Brienne, and Pod—are those set in the courts of Dorne and on the streets of Braavos. Fortunately, more scenes like this are on there way, because a) Jaime and Bronn are sailing to Dorne, b) Arya gains access to The House Of Black And White at the end of the episode, and c) Dr. Julian Bashir doesn’t beam down from Deep Space 9 for a single tense exchange with Ellaria Sand. But each time “The House Of Black And White” cuts away from Arya or Doran, it’s a tiny disappointment.
But these scenes, like the witch’s prophecy, are meant to tease—in ways that intrigue as well as taunt. Appropriate for the group that operates out of The House Of Black And White, the building and this storyline form one big question mark, a mystery for Arya to solve as she determines her life’s next course. There’s a hint of Scooby-Doo in Jaqen H’gar’s re-appearance, but it’s a shock nonetheless, its sense of surprise amplified by the utter uncertainty of Arya’s journey to Braavos. She knows only to the show the coin to a Braavosi and say “valar morghulis,” but neither she nor we know what that’s going to get her. Requesting the true identity of her red-headed champion, he says he is “No one, and that is who a girl must become.” Shedding a little more light on his idiosyncratic speech patterns, he opens the black door, Ramin Djawadi’s score crescendos, Arya sees an interior that the viewers can’t see, and destiny and ambiguity score one more “The House Of Black And White” victory.
- “The House Of Black And White”’s brief stay in the Water Gardens introduces former Starfleet physician Alexander Siddig in the role of Doran Martell. Is this the first casting crossover between two of TV’s biggest genre franchises?
- “A shadow with… a face?” Petyr Baelish is a dick, but he demonstrates here that Brienne could use a more plausible alibi for Renly’s murder. Then again, Game Of Thrones takes place in a world of dragons, giants, and undead monsters, so what’s so unbelievable about Stannis fathering a smoke monster with a red priestess and then sending said smoke monster to kill his brother? It all checks out with me.
- Can Cersei really be sure that the snake holding Myrcella’s necklace is a threat from the Martells and not a clue from Gotham City’s pernicious Prince of Puzzles, The Riddler?
- Tyrion offers a postmortem on seasons two and three of Game Of Thrones. “Every pile of shit on the side of every road has someone’s banner hanging from it.”
- “The House Of Black And White” offers a particularly grim variation on The Gilligan Cut: “How many dwarves are there in the world? Is Cersei going to kill them all?” Cut to: A dwarf’s decapitated head.
- Jon Snow can be a mopey git, but Kit Harington’s default brood serves the character well in the election sequence, all stooped shoulders and downcast glares at his mug.