In “The House of Black and White,” Game of Thrones was all about transformation. We watched as Arya, noble lady turned street rat, takes the first step on her path toward becoming a faceless assassin; as the Bastard of Winterfell rises through the ranks of the Night’s Watch with an offer to reclaim his family glory; and as a well-intentioned Mother of Dragons makes hard decisions as a ruler of her newly freed people. “The House of Black and White” signified a shift in the progress of these characters’ arcs, one that will have them racing ever faster toward the Iron Throne.
Arya arrives in the Essosian city as her ship passes beneath the city’s guardian titan statue. Her guide steers her through the Venice-like canals of the city marketplace and leaves her at the title structure, The House of Black and White. It’s an imposing building that seems to rise up out of the water itself, dominating the horizon. Arya knocks on the doors – one black, one white – to present her coin along with her now-famous phrase, looking for Jaqen H’ghar. When the man who answers turns her away, Arya remains on the building’s steps in all sorts of weather, playing with the coin and repeating her death-list mantra. Fed up with no response from inside the building, she tosses the coin into the drink and walks away.
Wandering the alleys of Braavos, Arya takes to decapitating pigeons for fun (and food). When she’s approached by a trio of thieves, she stands her ground, and while her Needle may not scare them off, the man of The House of Black and White certainly does. He leads Arya back to the building and returns her coin before revealing himself to be Jaqen H’ghar … or at least the man whose face resembles Arya’s former teacher. His cryptic answer to her question is merely the first step along the life-changing path that Arya will walk this season.
On the Road
Brienne and Pod seek food and drink in a crowded tavern, one that just happens to be populated by a score of knights accompanying Peter Baelish and Sansa Stark. While Pod fetches extra horses, Brienne dares to approach Littlefinger in order to relate Lady Catelyn’s charge to Sansa. Littlefinger wants nothing to do with her oaths and apparent inability to keep them. When the knights attempt to keep Brienne from leaving, she cuts a bloody swatch through their ranks and flees with Pod on horseback. (She may be noble and loyal to a fault, but she’s not very bright, is she?) The two soon become separated with Brienne arriving just in time to keep Podrick from being skewered by a lone knight. Brienne plans to track Sansa and Littlefinger despite Pod’s astute observation that neither of the Stark girls want her help.
On the road to Volantis (and eventually Mereen), Varys and Tyrion converse in a well-appointed carriage. Though Tyrion is still deep in the drink, Varys is attempting to convince him that it’s in their best interest to help Daenerys become Queen. It’s also in Tyrion’s best interest to keep a low profile since Cersei has the Westerosian countryside looking to cut off his head.
Jamie pays a visit to Cersei, who’s concerned about (t)he(i)r daughter Myrcella in Dorne. Why the sudden interest in her safety? Well it seems the Dornish royal folk have sent Cersei a statue of a viper with Myrcella’s locket hanging from its bared fangs. (It’s not exactly Glitter for Your Enemies, but it gets the point across.) To prove his love for Cersei and Myrcella, Jamie vows to go to Dorne to rescue her. Surely he’ll be taking someone along to be his … right-hand man, right? Enter Bronn (and Lollys, his sweet yet simple bride to be). It seems that Lollys is to be married off to another noble, thus freeing up Bronn’s schedule for a trip to Dorne. Don’t worry about the mercenary-turned-lord, however; Jamie’s promising him a tidy sum and a worthy bride should they return.
Another gift arrives for Cersei; this time, a dwarf’s head. It’s not Tyrion, but that won’t stop the bounty hunters from killing more dwarves in an attempt to win a promised lordship. After that grisly business (in which Qyburn manages to obtain the dwarf’s head for his … research), Cersei sets to reorganizing the Small Council that serves her son, the king. She demotes Maester Pycelle and elevates Qyburn to Master of Whispers, names Lord Mace Tyrell to Master of Coin, and asks Kevan Lannister to serve as the king’s Master of War. He is disappointed in the king’s absence, and moreso in Cersei’s appointment of puppets; he refuses the position and returns to Casterly Rock in a huff.
Ellaria Sand is chastising Doran Martell for his inaction after the death of his brother, Oberyn. She’s attempting to stir him into starting a war, saying that the Sand Snakes wish to avenge their father and the people of Dorne support them. While they talk of war, Myrcella walks through their gardens, courted by Trystane Martell.
Daario and Grey Worm walk the city’s passages and talk of the Sons of the Harpy. The Unsullied aren’t making any progress, but the Second Sons are ferreting out information in their own unique way, through brawling, drinking, whoring and intimidating. Meanwhile, Daenerys’ council is arguing over how to handle the Sons of the Harpy, and whether or not to try their latest prisoner in court. Those who were slaves under the Mereen nobility explain to their queen that mercy and fair trial are foreign concepts to the slave masters. When the council clears out, Barristan reminds Daenerys’ of her father The Mad King and his follies, warning her that executing her enemies will become easier the more she does it, a practice that will erode her humanity.
In the dungeons, the prisoner decries the Mother of Dragons and winds up executed and put on display in the streets for his insolence. Daenerys is displeased with the result and tries to explain to Mossador that the law is the law, and that there are no longer any slaves or masters. She brings Mossador to trial in front of the gathered citizens of Mereen. They cry for mercy even as Daario puts his executioner’s blade to the man’s neck. Their cries fall on deaf ears. And as Mossador’s head rolls, the former slaves begin to hiss their displeasure, rebelling against the Unsullied guards and attacking the city’s nobility. It’s an ugly scene that plays well to the perilous nature of Daenerys’ position and the fractious instability of her rule.
But just when she’s feeling down, guess who arrives to cheer her up? Drogon, in all his dragonific glory. They have a somewhat tense reunion as it looks for a moment as if he’s about to snap her up in his huge jaws, but he flies off over the city to close the episode.
Shireen teaches Gilly how to read while Sam busies himself reading history in the library. Gilly’s upset with Sam’s lack of patience in teaching her, and likes Shireen’s approach much better. Gilly’s also curious about Shireen’s affliction, known as Greyscale south of the wall, and nameless north of it. The Wildling girl reveals that two of her sisters were stricken with it, eventually devolving into something less than human so that her father was forced to kill them out in the woods. Lady Selyse is none too pleased with Shireen’s consorting with the Wildling girl, and warns her of the dangers it invites.
Elsewhere, Stannis and Jon Snow have a disagreement over how Mance Rayder’s execution played out. Jon tries to explain to the Man Who Would Be King that he’ll never hold the Wildlings’ respect now that he’s burned their leader. Stannis shows Jon a message from a Northern family on Bear Island who are still loyal to the Starks. More tensions arise when it’s revealed that the Night’s Watch is set to elect a new high commander, with Alliser Thorne likely to win the post. That would make Jon’s time at the Wall “unpleasant,” in his own words. Though Thorne would likely repay Jon’s bravery with punishment, Stannis offers to reward him, restoring his name and title as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell, if he only pledges his loyalty to him.
In the meeting hall, Jon talks over this decision with Sam, and his plan to refuse it since he’s already taken a lifelong vow to the Night’s Watch. The talk soon turns to electing the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. It’s no surprise when Alliser Thorne’s mouthpiece Janos Slynt rallies support for him; there’s also a nomination for Denys Mallister, a non-entity met with a cold reception. Before voting can commence, Sam speaks up for Jon … and stands up to Janos Slynt in the process, ‘Sam the Slayer’ indeed. He lays out a fantastic, albeit brief history of Snow’s time at the Wall. Thorne challenges the nomination by questioning Jon’s loyalty: Is it to the Wildlings, or his brothers in the Night’s Watch? What say you? Cast your lot!
Due to hanging chads and broken pottery shards, the vote results in a tie between Thorne and Snow, which is broken by Maester Aemon himself. Snow wins!
HBO’s Game of Thrones is always about the various power struggles across the fictional realm of the Known World, but “The House of Black and White” felt like a turning point episode for each of our protagonists. Each of them in turn are leaving the hard, wearying life of the road behind in order to take on the equally or even more taxing responsibilities of leadership. Snow, as always, has enemies at his side, but now has allies who look to him to lead rather than simply fight alongside them. Daenerys is learning that you can’t please all of the people all of the time (and when you don’t, they hiss at you). And Arya is now set to become the series’ biggest wildcard (with all due respect to Bran, Master of the Weirwood, since he won’t be in season five much if at all). The pieces are almost in place, though we’ve still got a long while to see who’s left standing when it’s all said and done.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Pod: “There’s a bunch of knights with them.” Brienne: “Bunch? What’s a bunch, Podrick? 6? 20?”
Littlefinger: “What did happen?” Brienne: “He was murdered by a shadow. A shadow with the face of Stannis Baratheon.” Littlefinger: “A shadow … with a face …”
Bronn: “I’ve been all over the world, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that meanness comes around. She’ll get what’s coming to her, your sister.”
Varys: “Cersei has offered a lordship to the man who brings her your head.” Tyrion: “She ought to offer her cunt; best part of her for the best part of me.”
Arya: “You said there was no Jaqen H’ghar here.” Jaqen H’ghar: “There isn’t. A man is not Jaqen H’ghar.” Arya: “Well who are you then?” Jaqen H’ghar: “No one. And that is what a girl must become.”