One of the most unique aspects of the fantasy genre is world building, especially when the arc of a story spans many characters and continents; the space-time of the narrative universe has a gravitational effect on the journey of our characters.
Game of Thrones is no different in this department. Among the sights the characters (and the audience) have already seen include the Wall, the Pyramids of Meereen, the dragon-fire ruins of Harrenhal, and the simple majesty of the Eyrie.
Most early episodes of any Thrones season focuses on acquainting us with new locations and characters, and that was delivered in spades this week. (The only season in which we didn't have a huge exposition dump was Season 4, the back half of A Storm of Swords, which ahad most of the pieces already in place to finish out the first act of A Song of Ice and Fire.) But as we travel to these new locations, what becomes readily apparent is that the game of thrones is played everywhere, at both the macro and micro levels.
Our first brand new location is Castle Stokeworth, ruled by House Stokeworth, residing on the shores of the Crownlands and acting as vassals to King's Landing. Here we meet Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, who we haven't seen since Tyrion asked him to be his champion versus the Mountain. He declined.
In that dungeon encounter, Bronn reveals that Cersei had promised him marriage to Lollys, the younger daughter of Lady Stokeworth. Tyrion lets our favorite sellsword know that Lollys is not set to inherit Stokeworth lands or keep, to which Bronn only notes that accidents do happen. He echoes that sentiment again to Lollys here, telling her that her sister's cruelty will pay karmic dividends in the end. "Meanness comes around," he tells her, planting the seed that some unfortunate event make come to pass for her sister (with a wink at the audience that it may be of Bronn's own doing).
However, Bronn's machinations on Lollys and Castle Stokeworth are cut short by "Jaime f*cking Lannister" sporting a new Lannister-crimson superhero outfit. For promises of a better match and castle, Bronn agrees to help Jaime rescue
his the Queen regent's daughter Myrcella...
...from Dorne, the southernmost region of Westeros. Dorne is predominantly a vast desert, cut off from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms by the Red Mountains to the north. Dorne has always been an outlier of sorts in Westeros; it was not part of Aegon the Conqueror's initial conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, and future Targaryen attempts at conquest were mostly unsuccessful and bloody. Dorne would later be brought into the kingdoms via marriage, a tradition which lasted into our current timeline. You might recall that The Red Viper Oberyn's sister, Elia, was wife to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen before being raped and murdered by The Mountain.
Our experience with the deceased Oberyn Martell also informs us that the culture of Dorne is significantly different; the sons of House Martell style themselves as Princes, women have far more liberty, sexual mores are not as puritanic, and bastards are treated as *GASP* people.
All of these attributes would make Dorne seemingly the most pleasant region in Westeros, but all is not well in the beautiful Water Gardens near Sunspear. In somewhat heavy-handed fashion, we are reacquainted with Ellaria Sand, Oberyn's paramour, who is clenching her fist at the sight of Myrcella Baratheon/Lannister frolicking about the gardens. Ellaria wishes to raises Dorne against the Lannisters, or at the very least, send Cersei bits and pieces of Myrcella as recompense for Oberyn's death.
Her request is met by the wheelchair-bound Prince of Dorne, Doran, and his bodyguard Areo Hotah. Doran has no stomach for Ellaria's call for violence against Myrcella, nor does he seemed move to action in any way regarding the death of his brother. In frustration, Ellaria storms out, not knowing that a Lannister is on his way into the snake pit. The question remains if Ellaria can mobilize Dorne (or at least the briefly mentioned Sand Snakes) before Jaime is able to complete his plot.
While Oberyn would have likely balked at hurting young Myrcella (the phrase echoes: "we do not hurt little girls in Dorne"), he would have seen Jaime, Kingslayer and Tywin's eldest son, as the perfect target to pay his debts.
After being sidelined for the premiere, we finally catch up with Arya Stark, who has arrived at the free city of Braavos, which we have seen once before. Stannis and Davos stopped by briefly last season, but then we only saw the Titan of Braavos and the insides of the Iron Bank (oh, and a whorehouse, musn't forget). Arya enters underneath the giant in much the same way, but this time we get a more comprehensive look at Braavos. A bustling port and home of the Iron Bank, this canal city is an important center of commerce and economy in the world. Too, it is one of the few cities in Essos that has no slaves, having been founded by former slaves of the Valyrian Empire.
Our Braavosi captain drops young Arya off at the titular House of Black and White (with amazing shots of the Titan at a distance), but the young she-wolf is denied entrance by an unknown hooded figure. Arya is not initially dissuaded, as she takes respite on the steps, reciting a prayer of those she wants dead (now excluding Tywin and the Hound).
The downshots here are beautiful, as Maisie Williams huddles in the corner in a torrential downpour; sympathetic nature informing us that Arya is in a cold, dark place. It's worth taking a step back here: Arya remains one of the most beloved characters of Game of Thrones, but her character arc should make every viewer uncomfortable. This 15-year-old girl has borne witness to war, execution, and torture, and she herself has already killed men in her adventures around the Riverlands (eyes she has closed forever, as Melisandre phrased it in Season 3).
This evokes a meta line of dialogue we received from Varys a couple seasons back: "The revenge you seek will be yours in time," he said, "if you have the stomach for it." Arya appears ready to start down that path for vengeance, knowing she seeks out an assassin, but that should not be sitting well with the audience. She is told the man she seeks is not known to the man who answered the door.
Arya has always been forward and courageous, as she is with the random boys in the street. In the past she has been confrontational with the likes of Meryn Trant, the Hound, and Tywin Lannister just to name a few. But some, like Gendry, have told her that her fearlessness can border on stupidity, that fear can be a healthy component to survival (a topic that Grey Worm and Daario also touch upon in this episode).
In our brief time with Jaqen H'ghar in Harrenhal, we learned he is anything but stupid; he's kindly, soft spoken, and inconspicuous. It's very possible that Arya will have to go through a Jedi-like training to learn to calm her emotions and comport herself in a manner befitting the skills she seeks to possess.
In Arya's final scene, the hooded man is revealed to be Jaqen himself, changing his face before Arya's eyes (in the season 2 finale he claimed to be part of an order known as The Faceless Men). We will learn much and more of him in upcoming episodes, but his line about being "no one," and that Arya must also become "no one," is of extreme importance.
Everything that has happened to Arya has happened because she is in fact "someone," namely the daughter of Eddard Stark. That's why Yoren rescued her from King's Landing, and that's why the Brotherhood and then The Hound took her captive. Her value as a hostage has left her fate in the hands of other, often crueler, men, but now she looks to pull an about face.
Earlier I mentioned the "space-time" of this story, and that word choice was no mistake. Whilst world building is most commonly manifested in locations and characters, it can be done via history as well. And for the first time since Jaime unveiled the origins of his Kingslayer moniker, we get to hear about Mad King Aerys from another of his former Kingsguards, Barristan Selmy.
As Daenerys tries to settle the political unease in Meereen, Barristan counsels her that meting out punishment as she saw fit would only make herself more assured in her own judgment.
He has seen this script before in the Mad King, who ended up burning fathers alive while sons looked on (more on this at the end). Instead he urges, and she assents, to a trial for the Son of the Harpy that Daario and Grey Worm had captured earlier.
Instead, however, one of Dany's new councilors, a freed slave named Mossador, takes matters into his own hands and kills the prisoner in his cell. Ser Barristan had given us some Westerosi history earlier, but now we get to see Game of Thrones history repeat itself.
What follows offers a chilling parallel to what befell Robb Stark in Season 3; Lord Karstark killed Lannister prisoners, which in turn led Robb to behead Lord Karstark, one of his most important bannermen. This would prove to be the nail in the coffin (or rather, the nail that secured Grey Wind's head to Robb's body) for the King in the North. Events play out similarly here, but instead of losing bannermen, Daenerys ostracizes the slaves she has freed, who simply sees Mossador's execution as another in a long list of violence that these former slaves have had to endure.
And this gets to another of GRRM's main themes: no matter where you go, the high lords will play their game of thrones.
Whether it is Dany in Meereen, Stannis and Jon at the Wall, Ellaria threatening Prince Doran in Dorne, or simply Bronn's plan to take Castle Stokeworth, every location is fraught with its own politik and power struggle, and they all seem to end in fire and blood.
Tyrion Lannister verbalizes this sentiment on his road to Volantis (more world building! This time the city from which Talisa Maegyr, Robb Stark's wife, hailed from), noting that everywhere already has a ruler, that every piece of sh*t has a banner flying overhead.
Also of note is that Tyrion is once again traveling in a box, though a bigger one than the one in which he crossed the Narrow Sea.
Tyrion is a man of intellectual curiosity, yet has not had a chance to explore this vast new continent (in the books, we learned that Tywin prevented Tyrion from traveling in fear that his whoring and debauchery would bring shame on House Lannister). This may be a function of the price on Tyrion's head, but his comments also suggest that the weight of killing his father and his lover (who he found in his father's bed) has left him a broken man.
Which finally takes us to The Wall, where the game is in full effect.
Stannis means to take the North from Roose and Ramsay Bolton, but to do so, he must rally the other northern lords to his side. This is proving difficult, as those not loyal to House Bolton still support House Stark (at Robb's coronation in the season 1 finale, the northern lords exhibit no desire to be ruled by some southron king). This point is punctuated by 10-year-old Lyanna Mormont, current Lord of Bear Island (and second cousin to Dany's dismissed counselor Jorah), who emphatically replies that Bear Island "knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark."
With the trueborn sons of Ned Stark thrown to the wind (or dead, RIP Robb), Jon Snow appears to be Stannis's ace in the hole. His plan is to legitimize Jon as a Stark (not unlike what happened to Ramsay last season) and seat him at Winterfell. Jon would yet again be a piece in another's game, but this would fulfill his lifelong wish of finally being considered a member of the family that raised him. However, Samwell Tarly and his brothers have their focus on what lies beyond the realm: The unconquered death north of the Wall.
A season and a half after the death of Lord Commander Mormont, the men of the Night's Watch elect their 998th Lord Commander. Maybe the most striking aspect about the whole election is the presence of meritocracy and democracy in Westeros, echoing Benjen Stark's quote from season one, "here, a man gets what he earns, when he earns it." Jon's actions as Mormont's squire, as wildling double agent, and as a commander and soldier has earned him the trust and respect of Castle Black, and with Maester Aemon's deciding vote, earns him the title of Lord Commander Snow.
Much like his father and half brother before him, Jon Snow now reluctantly finds himself in a position of power. He is a good, honorable man, but that didn't prevent doom from coming upon the rest of his family. A major aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is that good men don't necessarily make good rulers, as evidenced by Ned Stark. And Jon isn't just dealing with the concerns of the Night's Watch here; he is ward to thousands of wildling hostages, is host to the One True King of Westeros, and to his back is a war-torn North filled with Boltons and Iron men who would see the entire legacy of House Stark eradicated.
"Sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it," Jon Snow is told in the books. The same can be said of power; it may be used to devastating effect, but is equally as dangerous to those who wield it. There is no better example of this than Drogon; he (along with Rhaegal and Viserion) act as the source of Daenerys's power, but if she is unable to control, dead men and burned cities will be the end result.
There is a difference between obtaining power and holding onto it.
A couple extra ravens:
- Most episode titles lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and this one is no different, even if it is a bit less obvious. "The House of Black and White" refers to the location of the same name, but also to the election of Jon Snow as Lord Commander. The House of Black (i.e. Castle Black and the Night's Watch) and White (Snow), indeed.
- As noted above, Barristan mentions the Mad King burning fathers while sons look on. This specifically refers to Ned Stark's father and brother, Rickard and Brandon Stark, whose executions resulted in Robert's Rebellion and the Targaryen upheaval. The show has not yet gotten into the specifics of their brutal execution, but they touched on it a couple times in season 1, most prominently when Ned first enters the throne room and finds Jaime cleaning his sword.
- For all the talk of playing the game of thrones, I don't think anyone plays it worse than Brienne of Tarth. Her honor and belief in the virtuosity of her mission make her approach Littlefinger and Sansa head on, but her lack of tact allows Lord Baelish to stick her with the pointy end of his forked tongue. I sympathize with Podrick's assessment that Brienne is absolved of her vows now, but Brienne probably has the right of it: Sansa Stark will never truly be safe in Littlefinger's presence.
- Game of Thrones plays the long game as well as any show right now, and that was again evident with both Littlefinger and Sansa recalling past instances of having met Brienne (Renly's camp and the Purple Wedding, respectively). Dorne was mentioned as early as the third episode of the series (Tyrion named Dornish women as the strangest thing he's eaten), as is Braavos with the introduction of Syrio Forel.
- Speaking of Syrio, I always get a huge kick out of the fact that the Titan of Braavos holds a broken sword hilt, much like our last image of Syrio before he fell to Ser Meryn Trant in season 1, episode 8.
- The strength of this show as a whole is its cast, and the best parts are often when two actors are paired up for an extended journey together. Whether it draws from the source (Jaime and Brienne) or is entirely invented (Tywin and Arya), the rapport between the actors really brings life to the characters and the story. As such, I can't imagine anyone is not thrilled at the prospect of a Jaime and Bronn roadtrip.
- While Jaime heads to Dorne, Cersei reorganizes the Small Council into something more agreeable for her. This includes installing Qyburn as the new master of whisperers (the position Varys vacated when he fled), much to the dismay of Grand Maester Pycelle and uncle Kevan. Cersei has played the game of thrones really well so far, but has done so with the help of Tywin, Jaime, Littlefinger, Varys, and even Tyrion at times. With none of them around, no one is there to challenge her.
- Speaking of Qyburn, we also see him take the head of the murdered, non-Tyrion dwarf that was laid at Cersei's feet. Qyburn is no stranger to severed limbs, as he operated on Jaime's maimed hand in season 3, and was last seen in season 4 tending to a dying Mountain (and making cryptic comments about "changing" him). Whether this severed head has anything to do with that, I am not sure, but it's more than safe to say that Qyburn is up to something nefarious in the bowels of the Red Keep.
- Major props to Samwell Tarly's verbal depantsing of Lord Janos Slynt.
- We also got a brief chat with Gilly and Shireen Baratheon, and for the first time, the show discusses the scarring on the princess's face. Greyscale, it is called in the Seven Kingdoms, and it can be fatal in adults. Slowly over time, a person's skin turns gray, as if to stone, until it covers their entire body. At that point, the disease turns inward and calcifies the person's inner organs, resulting in death. In children, however, the affliction is often not fatal, though does result in permanent scarring like we see on Shireen's face. Whether this scene was just to provide some background on her scars, or if it was meant to foreshadow future events, will just have to be seen.
- No Natalie Dormer this week. I am not okay with this.
Another strong episode, albeit one that is more interested with setting new plots in motion and introducing us to new worlds and characters. As mentioned above, I thought some of the Ellaria material was a bit heavy handed, but ultimately forgivable given the wonderful work Indira Varma does in the role. I also would have re-arranged the last three sequences; while Drogon flying over Meereen was an impressive bit of CGI, I felt either Jon's ascension or Jaqen's reveal would have made for a better close.