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Game of Thrones Review: "The House of Black and White"

(Episode 5.02)

TV Reviews Game Of Thrones
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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review: "The House of Black and White"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review   Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.

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Shane,

If last week’s season premiere of Game of Thrones left me a little underwhelmed it was because I had my heart set on seeing Arya Stark arrive in Braavos with a mysterious coin in her hand and needle on her hip. So as soon as I saw Maisie Williams on that boat in the opening scene of “The House of Black and White,” I knew I was going to love this episode.

Arya in Braavos, Tyrion on the journey to Meereen, the Sand Snakes in Dorne—these threads all captivated me in the books, and we get the beginnings of all three in this episode. The House of Black and White is the first refuge that Arya has had since her father was executed in King’s Landing back in Season One. She’s grown up on the run in war-torn lands, disguised as a boy in the service of Tywin Lannister and more recently as the hostage of The Hound. She wants nothing more than revenge and finds herself on the steps of a temple devoted to death. We just got glimpses of Braavos last night—Arya beheading a pigeon and not backing down from a trio of thieves (“Nothing’s worth anything to dead men.”)—but it was enough to hook me.

We also got more of Tyrion and Varys matching wits on the quest to find Daenerys. Even a drunk Tyrion is quick enough for Varys. The best line of the episode came after Varys complained, “Are we really going to spend the entire road to Volantis talking about the futility of eveything?” Tyrion responded, “You’re right. No point.” You asked me last week if I’d be happy with a whole episode of just these two. Throw in some Arya scenes and you’ve got a deal.

But we also got reintroduced to Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s paramour and something of a maternal figure to his eight illegitimate daughters, the Sand Snakes. Arya Stark would fit right in at Dorne—much more so than Cersei’s sweet daughter Myrcella, who’s both guest and hostage of Prince Doran Martell, Lord of the Sunspear. Ellaria would like to send Myrcella back to Cersei one piece at a time, but Doran values peace—an unpopular sentiment among a people who’ve never truly been conquered.

Meanwhile just when we were giving Daenerys credit for bending despite her rigid beginnings, she makes the most rigid, merciless decision in the name of justice. In front of her near worshipful people she orders the execution of young man who murdered her enemy and loves her dearly. All that love quickly turns venomous when she refuses clemency to a hero of the people. All I could do was stop myself from shouting through the screen for her to bend. This was Robb Stark-rigid. That never goes well.

All that, plus Jon Snow becoming Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Brienne and Pod finding Sansa Stark, Cersei assuming power in King’s Landing and the return of Drogon, which, to my recollection, is the first time the TV show has gotten ahead of the books. That was a packed episode with some brutal swordplay from Brienne to save Podrick (and allow him to live on and ogle more pretty bar maids). What did you think?

—Josh

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Josh,

I led my first email last week with how much I loved the following line:

Varys, seeing Tyrion drunk: You know, there are faster ways to kill yourself.

Tyrion: Not for a coward.

I honestly did not think that would be topped this season, but they managed the trick with that insanely clever and funny “No point” one-liner from Tyrion. I want to see a spin-off of these two so bad, Josh. If Better Call Saul got one, Tyrion and Varys should too. Ideally, they’d be starting a business together—maybe money-lending?—and their entire days would be filled with these acerbic arguments. It would be the best, and I’m willing to invest $10,000 to see it happen.*

(*Of Paste’s money.)

I’ll stop my fan-boying now, because I realize that many other things happened in this episode. I, too, am glad to see Arya back, and I’m also glad to see that the show seems to be speeding through her House of the Dead storyline. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but there are a few times in Martin’s books where I’ve wondered why we remain in one place for long, and it looks like Benioff and Weiss are curtailing those moments in order to fit the entire story into three seasons. It looks like the same thing is happening with Tyrion’s journey—we’re not getting that whole weird saga where he has to joust another little person on a pig, and that’s fine and dandy with me.

A third moment, as you pointed out, is Dany’s struggles with her dragons. The whole Meereen saga seems to stretch on endlessly in the books, and even though I know some TV fans feel the same way, it really doesn’t come close. But you pointed out something that I think deserves to be in bold:

The show is now moving ahead of the books.

That’s a hugely significant moment, I think. We knew it was coming this season, but that doesn’t diminish the feeling that we’re in uncharted waters, and for me, it ups the excitement a little bit. I almost feel like I’m on a pendulum—I watched Season One first, then read all the books, then watched the rest of the series to date. I don’t think I’m alone in this odd sequence, where the show took the lead, then the books roared ahead, and then the show caught back up and is racing off into the distance. And let’s be real—at the glacial pace that Martin writes, this little race is done and dusted. Can you imagine how strange that must feel for Martin? Essentially, a TV show is going to spoil his book. It has to be the first time in history that’s ever happened, right?

Moving on, I really enjoyed the scene in the bar, when Petyr Baelish played Brienne for a fool. He thoroughly discredited her in front of Stansa, and as tough and persistent as Brienne can be, she was no match for the political wit of Baelish. Which doesn’t mean she won’t play a huge part in Sansa’s life going forward—just that she’s been out-maneuvered by one of the smartest men in Westeros.

And yes, Dany’s rigidity is not a good sign for her future, but the reappearance of Drogon is. I will say, though, that it almost felt like there was an attempt at fluidity in her decision to behead, if only in the sense that she was doling out justice evenly, and in the process possibly placating the Sons of the Harpy by showing she would punish both sides equally when they stepped out of line. But you’re right, doing it in front of the worshipful hordes, and turning your entire power base against you, seems like the worst possible way to proceed.

The best scene, though—at least for me—was Samwell making Jon Snow’s campaign speech at The Wall. Truly goosebump-raising, don’t you think? “He may be young, but he’s the commander we turned to when the night was darkest.” And Maester Aemon casting the deciding vote, VP-in-the-Senate style, was perfect. I always saw a bit of Joe Biden in Aemon Targaryen, didn’t you Josh?

I’ll send it back to you with a question: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that our five “main” characters survive through all seven seasons, or at least won’t die until the very end. (I’m talking about Daenerys, Jon Snow, Arya, Tyrion, and Bran, for the record.) Are we close enough to the end that we can start formulating theories? I’ll give you first option, and then I’ll have a go. Or are we overstepping our bounds here??

—Shane

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Shane,

It’s been so long since I read the series (like you, I devoured the whole set between Seasons One and Two), that I just had to go back and see where we are. And I was wrong, we haven’t quite gotten ahead of the novels—the two stories just have some differences. Drogon’s reappearance after the beheading doesn’t happen in the books, but there’s more to come in Meereen that’s already been written. Still, we know it’s coming soon, and I just hope that lights a fire under George R.R. Martin’s writing chair.

One thing that’s always struck me about the novels is how small a part anything supernatural plays at first, and how small a part it continues to play in many of the characters’ lives. There’s no reason for Sansa to believe in dragons or magic or religion. Or for Tyrion or Jaime Lannister. Or anyone in Dorne. But there’s power in the Red God. And Bran knows the old gods in the trees aren’t just stories. Jon and Daenerys have seen plenty. So as much as Game of Thrones is about ordinary human strife, as we come to a conclusion, I think the extraordinary is going to have to start showing itself even more. There’s a good vs. evil battle going on between humans (and giants) and the coming winter of wrights and skeletons and zombie men. Wherever we’re headed, all the gods may soon play their part.

Does that excite you, or do you prefer the more grounded, feudal and personal struggles of our characters? I like that Martin’s stories don’t overly focus on magic, but my inner geek is also happy whenever one of those dragons comes on screen, or the Night’s Watch has to fight the undead. And maybe it’s that balance which has caused the show to be such a hit with a broader audience.

—Josh

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Josh,

I see you’ve artfully dodged any and all predictions, and I’ll follow suit—for now. But this is not over.

In terms of the fantasy elements of the plot, I’ll put it this way—they certainly don’t bother me. I don’t get the same extra thrill as you do, but to me it’s like any other part of the story, which is to say, interesting and exciting. In other words, Martin and HBO have done their jobs so well that I basically see the Wights as a legitimate army, and the dragons as a legitimate weapon of war. The world is so well-crafted that nothing sticks out as incongruous or discordant.

I think that’s a great sign, because there are times when the fantastical elements, in other works, can seem like a cheat code. Martin certainly ran that risk, especially with the Wights and dragons. One is a vaguely human species that can only be killed with a specific type of glass (and also seems bigger and stronger than normal humans), and the others are seemingly un-killable fire-breathing beasts who bring death from above and are miles beyond any other weapon that’s been developed by men. In theory, at least, you’d expect Wights and dragons to just lay waste to any other living entity within a thousand-mile radius. Instead, they sort of blend into the world in a way that makes sense, and casts them as legitimate enemies rather than overpowering demigods.

Your email made me think of another question: Would Martin’s books have succeeded in the same way without any supernatural elements? If that were the case, it would read like an exciting piece of medieval fiction, and I like to think it would work on those terms. But the truth is that the elements of fantasy probably put it in a genre where it could gain far more recognition. Obviously, I don’t think Martin did that in a conniving way—he grew up on fantasy—but I do wonder if it could have reached the same audience without the dragons and white walkers and gods. Good food for thought.

Even if we haven’t gotten ahead of the books yet, that too is coming—just like winter. Maybe it motivates Martin, or maybe it enervates him, but either way I guess we can be grateful that we’re going to know the end of this story come hell or high water. The fact that it will be on television is a little bittersweet, in my mind, but it’s not the world’s biggest tragedy, as long as Martin finishes. And of course, our sign-off remains as relevant as ever:

Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.

—Shane

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Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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