Recap: Game of Thrones, “The House of Black and White” (5×02)

Power and leadership is a funny thing. When people aspire to it, they know exactly what they plan to do when they finally achieve it; getting there might take some scheming and manipulating, but once they hold the throne/dragon/sword of their dreams, they envision a future clear of obstacles. Rarely do people fighting to ascend to the top of the hierarchy stop to think of the unending challenges and the forked paths that lay ahead. But sometimes leaders face unwinnable situations. Sometimes you need to refuse what you’ve wanted most in the world since childhood out of honor; sometimes it’s choosing a justice than bears some unpleasant parallels to the acts of another golden-haired monarch.

More than ever, we see this week how much the kingly turnover and series of murders in King’s Landing has made dubious its claim to being the most powerful city in Seven Kingdoms. Power is leaching out of the city to the various factions consolidating in the North, at the wall, over in Essos, and now, as we learn this week, in Dorne. Cersei, who is barely holding herself together, can barely hold the Realm together in turn. A thinly veiled death threat towards the princess Myrcella, still in the care of the Prince of Dorne, once again forces Jaime from her side when his presence would be of immeasurable help in King’s Landing.

But Jaime instead sets out to rescue Myrcella from the Dornish, hopefully without opening up a new front in the ongoing war. What smooth, diplomatic, talented courtier does Jaime choose as his wingman? Why, Bronn, of course, lured away from his dimwitted bride-to-be by a promise of a better castle and a better wife. I’m not entirely sure that I’ve ever been more excited for anything in the history of Game of Thrones as I am for the wacky but lethal road-trip hijinks of Jaime and Bronn.

Tonight, we catch our first glimpse of Dorne, a Spanish-influenced paradise of flowering trees, tile mosaics, and decadent water gardens. Prince Doran, who has now watched two of his siblings meet their deaths in King’s Landing, wallows in his grief as he watches her son and heir, Trystane, frolic with his intended, Myrcella (whose fluffy pink dress and blonde curls make her bear a striking resemblance to Princess Peach). His morose repose is disturbed by the rage of Ellaria, the Red Viper’s paramour, returned to Dorne with nothing but revenge on her mind. She – backed by a group she refers to as the Sand Snakes – is pushing Doran to take Oberyn’s death out the pretty little princess. Doran refuses; “not while I rule,” he declares. “And how long will that be?” Ellaria sneers. Doran is old and infirm; Ellaria is fuled by hatred and anger. Winds of change and shifting power, indeed.

Left behind, Cersei assembles a new small council, claiming to be relaying the King’s wishes when she assigns new ranks to Lord Tyrell, Grand Maester Pycell, Qyburn, and Kevan Lannister. Nobody believes King Tommen has done anything since his coronation other than play with Ser Pounce, but they’re all happy enough to play their parts in Cersei’s charade. All except Kevan, who storms out in disgust at the way Cersei is keeping Tommen in the dark in order to prevent her inglorious descent into the role of Queen Mother, nothing more.

In the north, Stannis Baratheon continues making his case for being the most pragmatic and calculated of the potential Westerosi monarchs. While miffed that Jon Snow took the initiative to give Mance Rayder a merciful death, he approves of the boy’s resolve, his strength, and most pragmatically, his name. Well, not his current name – as Snow, Jon is useless, but as Stark, Jon could be the key to bringing the North into Stannis’ fold. Jon never dared dream of being Lord of Winterfell while Robb Stark was alive; their fraternal bond was too strong for that, but the lack of the Stark name has always been Jon’s greatest shame. Now that it’s within his grasp, he refuses it, and he’s never been more a Stark than when he chooses to honor his oath over desire.

But Jon’s fidelity (both to his honor and to his friendship with Sam) is rewarded when it comes time to elect the new Lord’s Commander of the Night’s Watch. Although both Ser Allister and Denys Mallister outweigh Jon in terms of experience, Sam’s speech in favor of Jon rings true: Jon, the man in whom Commander Mormont put his trust, was the person the Night’s Watch turned to “when the night was darkest.” A vote for Jon was more than just a vote for a man, but also a vote in favor of a fundamental shift in thinking about who the enemy is. Ser Allister asked if the men wanted a leader who fought Wildlings or made love to them, and the Night’s Watch is split almost down the middle. Although Maester Aemon’s tiebreaking vote gives Jon the victory, he hardly has a mandate. The Night’s Watch, like Westeros at large, remains deeply divided.

Poor Dany. The Sons of the Harpy aren’t letting up their attacks, but thanks to Daario, she now has one of them locked in a cell. What, then, to do with him? Dany’s council can’t advise figure out how to advise her on the matter, as they are deeply divided between ordering his immediate execution as a show of strength (Mossador and Daario) or demonstrating justice by putting him on trial for his crimes (Hizdhar and Ser Barristan). Justice edges out execution by a narrow margin when Barristan gently reminds her of her father’s tactics – burning and slaughtering his enemies – and how it almost extinguished the Targaryen line. The Sons may deserve death, but give them justice instead, and break the cycle of brutality.

Dany’s commitment to justice goes horribly wrong when Mossador decides to take matters into his own hands, and murders the Son of the Harpy, scrawling “Kill the Masters” on the wall in the man’s blood. (Not to quibble, but shouldn’t that have been written in Low Valyrian?) To prove her commitment to equal justice, she brings Mossador in front of an assembly of the Meereenese, both former master and former slave, and orders Daario to remove Mossador’s head. Violence breaks out between former masters and former slaves as the Unsullied make a protective canopy over Dany and whisk her back to the protection of the pyramid. While Mossador’s sudden appearance last week means his death has very little emotional impact, the former slaves’ shift from cries for mercy to a hiss of disapproval signals that she’s made a dangerous and potentially catastrophic choice. Alone and devastated, Dany experiences a fleeting moment of joy when Drogon returns, more willing to approach her than his siblings locked away in the fighting pits. But Drogon flees, and Dany is crestfallen.

While those fighting for the position at the top of the food chain struggle to maintain their identities, the Stark sisters are forging new ones. The trauma of their father’s execution, the murder of their mother and brother, and their various imprisonments have hardened their hearts and calcified their resolve, but what’s remarkable is that we still see the core of their personalities as determined back in the very first episode. Dark Sansa peppers Littlefinger with questions like the diligent student she is, and basks in his praise of her observational skills as she once basked in the Septa’s praise of her needlework. When Brienne – poor, tragically noble Brienne – tries to convince Dark Sansa of her loyalty, Dark Sansa takes a cold, heartless stance towards the lordless knight, an almost perfect imitation of what the girl has seen queenly behavior to be. Dark Sansa chooses Littlefinger’s marriage plot over Brienne’s offer of protection, partially because she can’t forgive the older woman’s Lannister ties. While she may be disillusioned by the ways of court and the nobility, she still believes that playing within the system is the best way to win.

Arya, typically, is off adventuring on her own, and after her absence last week we see her arrive in Venice – I mean, Braavos – sailing under the skirt of the Titan to meet her destiny. The ship’s captain takes her all the way to the House of Black and White, but when she knocks, she’s denied entry by a white-robed attendant. “I have nowhere else to go!” she protests. “You have everywhere else to go,” he counters, as he slams the door in her face. Arya being Arya, she stubbornly sits on the steps for a day and a night, reciting her list of enemies (now down to Cersei, Walder Frey, the Mountain, and Meryn Trant) through rain and shine, until hunger gets the best of her and drives her to hunt pigeons. She chucks the coin into the sea, and heads into the city.

Like in her first appearance at Winterfell, Arya stands her ground, challenging the bigger and stronger boys, and never doubts her own resourcefulness. She may have hardened – once upon a time, she named her direwolf for a queen of legend, but now she scoffs at the captain’s story of the Titan wading out to fight Braavos’ enemies, “it’s only a statue” – but her determination and perseverance impresses the white-robed attendant. She earns back the coin, and the attendant reveals another of his many faces to show none other then Jaqen H’ghar (a surprise given away in the opening credits to eagle-eyed viewers). Like Dark Sansa, Arya’s on her own journey now, but hers is to become “No one” in service of the Many-Faced God and her own revenge.

Odds & Ends

– It appears that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have made a wise move to move characters who went off on their own journeys – Brienne, Jaime – in the books and either add them into other stories, or to take known characters and place them in roles occupied by ones from the book we haven’t met. In this case, Ellaria seems to be taking over Arianne Martell’s plotting and Jaqen H’ghar fills in for the priest in the House of Black and White. Without giving away future plot details, this trend continues, and the show is better for having its principle characters starting to cluster back together again.

– Shireen is adorably teaching Gilly to read. From the extended conversation the two girls have with Sam about greyscale, it seems that the affliction will be of import going forward.

– “She ought to offer her cunt. Best part of her for the best part of me.” Tyrion may be still locked in a (slightly larger) box on the way to Volantis, but he still gets the best lines.

– Sand Snakes! Sand Snakes! Sand Snakes! That is all.

– Nudity Watch: None. None? Was I on the right channel?

– Death Toll: 1 minor character (Mossador); 3 of Littlefinger’s knights slain by Brienne; an unknown number of Meerenese. Confirmed season total: 6