After an episode in which most of our characters were regrouping after the cataclysms of Season 4, the second episode of this season, “The House of Black and White,” starts moving the pieces around the game board and setting up the conflicts for the season ahead.
The result is a more dynamic episode than last week’s, and a solid one, if perhaps not a particularly memorable one.
As always, spoilers for those who haven’t seen this week’s Game of Thrones follow below the jump.
1. One thing that really struck me in this episode was how it looked. This week’s episode, like the one before it, was directed by Michael Slovis, who has many more cinematography credits to his name (including being the DP for over half of the episodes of Breaking Bad) than directing credits, and he seems to have brought a real eye for light and color to his work on the show.
There’s a visual trick that, through abuse over the last ten years or so, flirts with cliché, but throughout the episode I was noticing how little glimmers of complimentary colors were being used to create visual contrast in what would otherwise be a drab images. It wasn’t in your face, though it was certainly intentional, and made the episode interesting to look at while still of a piece with the established visual look of the show.
Besides color, light was used in interesting ways, too. Several times, like the episode’s interior scenes at Castle Black, I noticed how characters would be in varying levels of shadow, but never hard to make out or murky. It seems like a simple thing, but it is hard to pull off, and shows what kind of a difference it can make to have someone who cut their teeth thinking about how light and shadow work calling the shots.
2. It’s also interesting, speaking of color, light and shadow, that the name of this week’s episode is “The House of Black and White,” which appropriately refers to the actual House of Black and White in Braavos (one of the episode’s several beautiful new locations), but not to much else. One of the recurring themes on this show is that nothing is really “black and white,” and this episode is no exception. The show’s heroes, such as they are, sometimes make terrible choices, or choices that seem good but have terrible consequences. The inverse could be said for the villains, who, nasty as they may be, often have understandable intentions.
Good and evil, black and white; these concepts are hard to pin down in a show like Game of Thrones with its shifting allegiances and moral murkiness. Episode titles on the show usually have some resonance beyond their literal reference, but it’s hard to see what in this episode, other than that door, was “black and white.”
3. Speaking of the titular House, Arya’s story in this episode was a little disappointing.
Her arrival in Braavos is great, her entry into the House at the end is, too. But what isn’t clear is why A Man (whose name isn’t Jaqen H’ghar) didn’t let her in in the first place, only to come get her later. Was it some kind of test? If so, I’d think throwing the coin away in the harbor would have been a pretty good way to fail it. Does the House of Black and White have a password, and the password is “threatening a couple of random street toughs who want your pigeon?”
I’m very interested in what mysteries Arya is going to discover in The House, and the last shot we see of her, peering into the door at something we can’t see, was a fun tease, but everything that built up to it kind of just felt like tapdancing.
Also, people changing their faces while referencing “black and white” has me assuming that inside the House is just the set of this video, all the time.
4. Cersei Lannister makes bad choices.
I wondered, after last year’s season finale, what to make of the scene where she told Tywin off and confessed the truth about her and Jaime – if perhaps we were to expect her to feel some guilt after her father’s death. Now, it’s clear what that scene was: giving us a taste of what Cersei Lannister has always wanted to be outside of the shadow of Tywin Lannister.
And the person she wants to be is, in a word, reckless.
Shouting at Jaime about “our daughter” without caring who hears, paying “hunters” to kill any dwarf they come across in the hopes that they get Tyrion (giving us a darkly comic smash-cut), stacking the Small Council with allies even if it alienates her powerful uncle* – these are the actions of someone who no longer cares about the long-term ramifications of her decisions.
Obviously all of these choices she’s making are, in some way, reacting to the prophecy we saw in the beginning of last week’s episode, and her desperately trying to defy fate and protect her children. Cersei may be lashing out, acting rashly, but to her, it all makes sense. Also, interesting that this episode didn’t start with a similar flashback, so will that be a one-time thing?
Cersei’s efforts to protect her children bring Jaime back into contact with Bronn (in the second of the season’s beautiful new locations).
When Jaime arrives, Bronn is just wrapping up hinting to his oblivious betrothed that he has plans for her sister, giving what could just as easily be a second prophecy about Jaime’s sister:
“Your sister is a mean person. I’ve been all over the world, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that meanness comes around. People like your sister, they always get what’s coming for them, eventually.”
Also, I want Jaime’s jacket from this scene.
5. Cersei and Myrcella’s story also gives us our first glimpse of Dorne (and the episode’s third beautiful new location), though we don’t really see much. The scene mostly serves to show us Dorne itself, introduce us to Prince Doran, and show us that Oberyn Martell’s mourning paramour Ellaria Sand has an accent that gets thicker when she’s actually in Dorne.
6. Also connected to Cersei’s machinations, but mostly in that they are fleeing from them, we get another great scene between Tyrion and Varys. Sad drunk Tyrion has some really great patter with Varys, and this episode gave us one of my favorite jokes from the show so far:
Varys: “Are we really going to spend the entire road to Volantis talking about the futility of everything.”
Tyrion: “You’re right, there’s no point.”
Nonetheless, I’m hoping Tyrion bucks up soon. I said that last week Tyrion was in his “Big Sad,” which some Googling has confirmed is not actually a common term in story analysis, but I’m going to use it anyway. Tyrion is most interesting when he’s making choices, and being sulky and letting Varys cart him around everywhere is the opposite of making choices. That can be interesting for a moment, but because the format of this show only gives us a few minutes with each character per week, lingering even a little too long on an idea can feel like an eternity.
7. Speaking of people making choices, Sansa thinks that Littlefinger is a better ally than Brienne of Tarth, so I get to keep the streak alive:
The confrontation at the inn and the brief horseback chase scene with Brienne, Pod and some of Littlefinger’s guards was a fun and well-staged little bit of action. The whole sequence – especially the scene in the inn – felt heavily inspired by Westerns. It’s fun to see more and more genre elements creeping into the show, and not just traditional fantasy.
I also loved this exchange:
Brienne: “Ready the horses.”
Pod: “We only have one horse.”
Brienne: “Find more.”
I had a moment of genuine terror shortly after Brienne and Pod got separated during the chase when I remembered what show I was watching and genuinely believed for a moment that it was possible that Pod could get himself killed. It’s cool that the show has earned that.
Also, we finally got to see Oathkeeper’s Valyrian edge in grisly action, chopping through swords and necks with the same ease.
8. Finally, finally, finally!
Anyone who understood how stories work has known for just about forever that Jon Snow was going to end up Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, ending the current Lord Commander’s reign of grumpiness. I said last season that the Lord Commander is gunning for the Cornelius Fudge Lifetime Achievement Award in Credibility-Straining Doubt of a Hero’s Credibility.
The election finally wraps that campaign up, and even gives Jon a strange and exciting new experience: not sulking.
The voting scene was actually pretty great, with Sam standing up not just for Jon, but for himself, and Maester Aemon putting Jon over the top. There were a couple of other scenes at Castle Black this week that were also more interesting than the usual Castle Black fare: Jon being offered the lordship of Winterfell by Stannis, Stannis’ daughter teaching Gilly letters (“I know S”) while Samwell reads about “’Ostrich’ Stark.”
Sticking these groups of characters together has created some new dynamics and brought some new life to the grim and sullen adventures of the Night’s Watch and Stannis and Co. respectively. Hopefully these new dynamics, and the new Lord Commander, are going to give the Watchers on the Wall a new mission statement other than “sit here in this remote place and literally do nothing.”
9. If last week’s toppling of a deposed regime’s statue wasn’t enough, Daenerys’ situation in Meereen keeps on reminding me of contemporary military quagmires, as she and her military advisors deal with counterinsurgency strategies, the question of detention without trial, and the ramifications of extrajudicial killings.
Daenerys’ arc for about two seasons now has been about her grappling with what kind of ruler she will be and how she defines “justice.” She’s had several answers for that (informed, mostly, by whoever among her advisors corrected her last), and when confronted with her most complicated test of her conception of justice in this week’s episode, she struggles for a good answer.
The problem with Daenerys’ story on the show had previously been that she never had to make tough choices or deal with the consequences. She was a badass lady with dragons and a rapidly-growing army on a mission to kick ass, free slaves, and, at some point down the road, eventually claim the Iron Throne. Since taking Meereen, she’s struggled to deal with the ramifications of her choices (in a way that Cersei across the Narrow Sea is choosing not to).
It’s a tough thing to pull off in a way that is still compelling – a quagmire, by definition, means things aren’t changing much – but it has forced her to make more interesting choices. Confronted in this episode with a zealous former slave who ignores her orders and kills a captured Son of the Harpy who is awaiting trial, she decides that the best choice is a public display of justice that shows that she will take action to uphold the law, whoever the accused is. In a scene with symetrical staging that parallels the doors of the House of Black and White, with the freed slaves of Meereen on one side and the Old Masters on the other, she executes the man.
The result is a riot.
Daenerys’ linear conquest storyline has turned into a story about someone struggling with what it means to be the queen, or, more specifically, with what kind of a queen is Daenerys Stormborn. On the one hand, she wants to embrace the power of her family name, on the other, she is horrified by the legacy of her father the Mad King. She wants to crucify the masters, but she wants to be merciful. She wants to show the people of Meereen that she can mete out justice evenhandedly, but doing so tears the city apart.
She wants to be the Mother of Dragons, but as the episode’s final scene shows, she’s struggling to do that anymore as well. She gets some small comfort in the long-missing Drogon returning, but after the dragon sniffs briefly at his mother’s hand, he flies back off into the night to do whatever he pleases, Daenery’s plans be damned. Just like the two other dragons who she chained up for the actions of Drogon, he’s become something she can’t control anymore.
For the first time in a while, things are going more bad for Dany than they are good.
*- I say powerful because her uncle, I presume, is now Lord of Casterly Rock, with Tywin dead, Jaime still in the Kingsguard and Tyrion a fugitive. But I’m actually not sure. The clockwork map intro sequence should really be twice as long every episode and have on-screen graphics giving updates about stuff like that. Also, I loved Mace Tyrell in this scene: so pompous, so proud, so completely oblivious that he’s getting played. Roger Ashton-Griffiths is a delight. ^