Game of Thrones keeps delving into murkier and murkier territory, as we sift through the ashes of war and the show adapts George R.R. Martin’s most morally ambiguous books. So maybe it’s not a surprise that too much loyalty poses as much danger as betrayal. Spoilers...
Last week’s episode was the traditional “check in on a dozen simmering plots” season opener. But this week’s “The House of Black and White” is a bit more focused.
In particular, this episode is about: 1) Arya Stark arriving in Braavos and getting accepted by Assassin Academy. 2) Daenerys deciding whether to execute a captured terrorist, and then the terrorist’s murderer. 3) Brienne of Tarth finding Sansa Stark and getting shot down again. 4) Jon Snow turning down the Stark name and getting elected High Commander. 5) Jaime Lannister decides to go to Dorne... with Bronn! 6) Tyrion is bored.
Sometimes, it’s easy to read too much thematically into an individual episode of Game of Thrones — the show has themes as a whole, but each episode is often constructed just a matter of fitting in the tons of story developments into an episode in the most elegant manner possible. But then you get these interesting juxtapositions.
For example, this episode features two sequences where someone finally achieves a reunion that they’ve been trying to make for a while — and gets shot down.
Brienne of Tarth lucks out and finds Sansa Stark in a tavern that she and Podrick Payne stop off at, and meanwhile Sansa’s sister Arya arrives in Braavos with her fancy coin, and comes to the House of Black and White, the home of the famous assassins like her old friend Jaqen H’ghar. In both cases, they’ve apparently got too much baggage to be accepted.
In the case of Brienne of Tarth, she’s got some of the same problems with Sansa that she did with Arya — she’s wearing fancy, expensive armor that she got from Jaime Lannister. And Sansa’s uncle-by-marriage Littlefinger wastes no time in pointing this out. She also failed to protect King Renly and Catelyn Stark from being murdered when she was sworn to them.
But the thing that really dooms Brienne, in Sansa’s eyes, is that she came to Joffrey’s wedding and bowed to the horrible king. Sansa had no choice about being at that wedding, but Brienne did — and she chose to go and pay her respects. That means Sansa has zero interest in talking to Brienne about anything.
So Brienne and Podrick — who hilariously sucks at horse chases — get chased by some of Littlefinger’s paid-for knights, because if anybody knows where Sansa is and whom she’s with, it’ll be bad news for Littlefinger. They get away clean, but Brienne is determined to keep trying to save Sansa, because she doesn’t believe Sansa is safe with Littlefinger. (Although she may be thinking of the old, passive Sansa. The new manipulative Sansa seems to be holding her own just fine. She questions Littlefinger about that message he received last week, and he tells her it was a marriage proposal, that’s just been accepted. Yay, another wedding!)
In any case, Brienne has too much baggage — both literally, in terms of the kickass armor, and figuratively, in terms of the past failures and compromises — to win over Sansa.
And meanwhile, Arya shows up in Braavos and gets dropped off at the House of Black and White, in an opening sequence that’s full of neat details of life in Braavos, along the canals. But at the home of the Faceless Men, she’s greeted by a stranger who frowns at her and says there’s nobody there by the name of Jaqen H’ghar, the man she knew back in Westeros.
So Arya is left to sit on the steps like a lost child, chanting the names of the people she’s sworn revenge on, for what seems like days. Until she finally gives up and goes off to kill a pigeon, then threaten some local toughs who want her sword — only to encounter the Faceless Man once again, who reveals the face of Jaqen and invites her inside.
Why doesn’t Arya get to go inside the first time? Either they’re just seeing how badly she wants it, or she fails the audition at first. She’s too keen on spouting the name of Jaqen, when the man she new was actually “no-one,” and if she joins the Faceless Men she has to learn to be “no-one” as well. Maybe the endless chanting of her old scores to settle counts against her as well — like, she’s unable to let go of her past attachments, which include vendettas.
In any case, the juxtaposition of the two sequences feels pretty interesting. Sansa has major trust issues, and would rather stick with Littlefinger (whom she knows she can’t trust but feels she understands). Arya, meanwhile, takes things at face value (literally) and places too much faith in Jaqen, a man she already knows doesn’t really exist.
OK, so here’s another interesting juxtaposition in this episode. At Castle Black, Stannis Baratheon explains his philosophy of ruling: “Show too much kindness, people won’t fear you. If they don’t fear you, they won’t follow you.” Meanwhile, in Meereen, Ser Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys that everything they say about the Mad King is true — his brutality made the revolt about him much worse, and led to the downfall of the Targaryens.
Which one of them is right? To some extent, they’re talking about two opposite extremes: too much kindness and too much rough justice. But also, Stannis is showing exactly why pretty much nobody wants him to be king, and why Varys is convinced that Daenerys would be a way better ruler than Stannis.
The irony is that Stannis is talking about how he punishes rulebreakers, right after he’s decided not to try and punish Jon Snow for putting the burning Mance Rayder out of his misery. (Does Stannis even have jurisdiction over Jon Snow?) The lack of fallout from Jon Snow ruining Stannis’ barbecue is one of the big surprises in this episode. Stannis lets Jon Snow off the hook, because he needs Jon Snow’s help retaking the North.
Stannis has gotten a message from the 10-year-old Lady of Bear Island, swearing fealty to none but the dead King in the North, Robb Stark. Just like the Wildlings whose leader Stannis just executed, the Northerners won’t follow anyone but one of their own. So Stannis wants to turn Jon Snow into Jon Stark, revoking Jon’s bastard status, and make him Lord of Winterfell. (There’s some precedent for this — it’s how the sadistic Ramsay Snow became Ramsay Bolton.)
But Jon Snow decides to turn Stannis down — because he made a vow to the Night’s Watch, and can’t abandon it to go rule Winterfell. (Any more than Maester Aemon could become Aemon Targaryen again and try to avenge his dead family.)
Stannis insists that he can make anything legal with regards to Jon Snow, because “the King’s word is law.” Whereas, half a world away, Ser Barristan Selmy is insisting that the rule of law is more important than any single ruler’s decisions.
Over in Meereen, Daario Naharis has tracked down one of the Sons of the Harpy, that terrorist group that’s trying to overthrow Daenerys and bring back slavery. (And Daario says that fear is “useful” for understanding people and finding where they’re hiding, making the lack of fear a weakness for the Unsullied.) Once the Son of the Harpy is in custody, Daenerys’ Small Council debates what to do about him.
Almost everyone wants to execute the terrorist and have done with it, but Ser Barristan convinces Daenerys that it’s better to put him on trial and show that she’s better than her enemies. And that she’s not like her father, who just straight-up burned people right and left. (What kind of a king just burns people alive? Oh, wait.) But before Daenerys can have her trial, one of her followers murders the prisoner, because he thought Daenerys’ hands were tied and he was doing what she really wanted.
So Daenerys is forced to try and explain to “her people” that freedom and justice go hand in hand, and you can’t have one without the other. This is sort of a tough concept to explain to a culture that had human slavery until a few minutes ago. The idea of the rule of law is an esoteric one, even in the relatively free Westeros. When she executes the ex-slave who killed the imprisoned harpy, the other former slaves don’t see justice — they just see their liberator turning against them. They hiss, and rocks are thrown. Things are about to get ugly.
And then Daenerys gets a visit from Drogon, the only one of her three dragons that’s not chained up in a crypt. Drogon seems kind of friendly at first, but then he kind of snorts at her and flies away. Does he knows he’s keeping the other dragons in chains? Or that she’s starting to get enmeshed in political sliminess? Or is he just hungry and ready to fly off and get some dinner?
Daenerys hearing her own followers hiss at her is just one of a few situations in this episode where rulers are challenged by their own people — the latest iteration of this show’s ongoing preoccupation with where power comes from.
And a huge part of the political strife this time around comes from the question of what to do with Princess Myrcella. Way back in season two, Tyrion Lannister became Hand of the King and decided to send Myrcella off to Dorne and promise her in marriage to Trystane Martell, the youngest son of the ruler of Dorne, Doran Martell. (Trystane is also the nephew of Oberyn Martell, who fought and died for Tyrion.) When Grand Maester Pycelle told Tyrion’s sister Cersei about this plan, Tyrion had him locked up.
So now Cersei has gotten Myrcella’s necklace (identical to one Cersei wears) sent to her with a fancy snake statue, in a clear threat. Cersei is so worried about Myrcella, she doesn’t even balk at shouting at Jaime that Myrcella’s Jaime’s daughter too. (To Cersei, Jaime is a bad father because he hasn’t been there for his kids. To Jaime, he’s a good father because he hasn’t gotten his kids attacked in the street, for being the product of incest.)
Jaime decides to go to Dorne to rescue Myrcella secretly, with the help of Ser Bronn, Tyrion’s old sidekick who was teaching Jaime to fight one-handed. Bronn is all set to marry Lollys Stokeworth, a simple-minded sweet girl whose older sister is set to inherit a really nice castle. (Unless the mean older sister somehow gets what’s coming to her by some totally unknown random means, that is.) Jaime fixes Lollys up with a different husband, and promises a way better bride and castle to Bronn, if he just helps with this one small thing.
But meanwhile, in Dorne, they’re none too sure what to do about Myrcella either. She’s hanging out in the beautiful Water Gardens, courted by Trystane and watched over by Doran, who is mourning Oberyn but not planning to go to war over Oberyn’s death. Oberyn’s lover, Ellaria Sand, wants to send Myrcella to Cersei one finger at a time (and may have been the one who sent the necklace.) But Doran says they don’t mutilate girls as long as he’s in charge.
Ellaria says that all of Dorne wants war with the Lannisters over Oberyn’s death, but Doran says they don’t get a vote. But Ellaria seems to hint that Doran may not be in power that much longer if he doesn’t obey the will of the people — just like Daenerys finds her approval ratings dropping when she executes the wrong guy.
So Cersei is sort of Hand of the King now — not officially, because she’s really the Queen Mother — but in practice. And she tries to get the Small Council in line by handing out favors. She makes Mace Tyrell, father of her son’s future bride, the Master of Coin as well as Master of Ships, for example.
But she runs into trouble pretty quickly. She wants to make Qyburn, the disgraced former maester who saved Jaime’s arm, into the new Master of Whispers (replacing the fugitive Varys). Grand Maester Pycelle isn’t too thrilled about this, because Qyburn is kind of an unsavory character — which he has a point about, judging from Qyburn’s interest in a severed head that some hunters erroneously thought belonged to Tyrion.
Cersei also wants her uncle Kevan Lannister to be the Master of War, but he doesn’t recognize her authority — she claims to speak for her son, the King, but he’s not there in person. Kevan more or less storms out of the council meeting and says that if the King wants to talk to him personally, he’ll be back home in Casterly Rock.
Cersei’s having a hard time ruling, partly because she’s a woman but also because she has no understanding of the subtleties of politics and compromise. The woman who tried to explain to Joffrey, back in season one, that you can’t just conquer the North militarily, is now trying to throw her weight around instead of being sneaky. (It’s also worth remembering the conversation last week, where Jaime tried to warn Cersei that “they” were going to try and take everything away from the Lannisters, and they had to stick together, but Cersei was too busy dwelling on bitterness and paranoia.)
By contrast, on the road to Volantis, Varys spends a lot of time trying to convince Tyrion that he was actually pretty good in the role that Cersei is now making a hash of. Tyrion responds that he got a lot of people killed — but Varys says he had promise in other areas, too. (Love the Tyrion-and-Varys show.)
Tyrion reveals one reason he’s not too keen on diving back into Westerosi politics — he had the chance to flee King’s Landing with Shae, who still loved him and hadn’t taken up with his father Tywin yet — and he said no, because “I liked it.” He enjoyed playing the game too much to leave while he still could, and now his love of the game is tied up with his overall guilt and self-loathing.
Tyrion keeps insisting that even when he had power, he was only a servant — but he still enjoyed it too much.
Varys says that people like Tyrion and himself have to accept that they will only be able to wield power as servants. “People follow leaders, and they will never follow us.” Regular people find Varys and Tyrion repulsive, and the feeling is mutual, which is why they hide inside “large comfortable boxes” (like the one they’re hiding in right now.) But sooner or later, the box is never big enough, and you’re not satisfied hiding away.
Cersei seems unable to accept the idea of wielding power from behind the scenes, like Varys, and doesn’t seem to realize that by speaking for the King, she’s making him seem even weaker as a ruler than he already is. (When she’s not shouting that he’s actually the product of incest, that is.)
Doran Martell and Daenerys both get some warnings that they’re losing the support of their people, and Stannis and Cersei are both having a bumpy ride as well. But meanwhile, Jon Snow gets unexpectedly elected as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, even though he didn’t stand for the honor. (It’s actually a tie, but Maester Aemon casts the tie-breaker for Jon.)
Jon’s biggest liability is similar to Doran’s — he’s seen as too soft on his enemies. Jon was in love with a Wildling girl, and he lived with them for a long time (on an undercover mission) plus he was sort of friends with Mance Rayder. Jon went north of the Wall the day after the battle to kill Mance Rayder — but as Ser Alliser Thorne points out, they might have kissed and made up instead, if Stannis hadn’t shown up.
(And meanwhile, Stannis’ wife, Queen Selyse, warns Princess Shireen to stay away from the Wildling girl Gilly, because Shireen just doesn’t know how awful people can be. And we hear the horrid tale of how Gilly’s father/husband Craster handled having daughters with Shireen’s ailment, grayscale.)
The other candidates for Lord Commander are Ser Alliser, a hard-ass who hates Jon Snow and also loathes the Wildlings. And Ser Denys Malliser, who’s a respected veteran.
It’s hard to tell what makes Jon Snow the winning candidate. Partly, it’s probably the fact that he led the defense of Castle Black after Ser Alliser was wounded. But a major deciding factor seems to be that Ser Alliser has allied himself with Lord Janos Slynt, the odious coward who hid during the battle and shows nothing but contempt for his fellow Crows. Lord Janos is a huge political liability for Ser Alliser, which Samwell Tarly exploits to bring him down.
It’s actually pretty interesting that being too close to the Wildlings is less of a political problem than being best friends with a cowardly asshat. In the end, though, it comes down to the same problem that Daenerys is dealing with, in a very different way: sometimes your most loyal followers are the ones who will get you in the most trouble.