Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Game of Thrones S5E02 - The House of Black and White (TV spoilers)

The past is always round the corner


“Cersei. Ser Meryn Trant. Walder Frey. The Mountain."

In the second episode of the season, we catch up with Arya, Bronn loses some prestige, Brienne kicks all kinds of posterior in Riverrun and we get our first glimpse of Dorne. With all this going on, you'd be a fool to not join in the fun. Valar morghulis.
George RR Martin is clearly a big fan of history and indeed, sometimes A Song of Ice & Fire / Game of Thrones resembles history transposed onto another format, with the addition of dragons and magic. Now the series has 4 completed series, it's built up enough history to be able to live off past events, and this episode very much does so. At every turn we see old faces and events reverberating through the halls of Kings Landing and Dorne's Water Gardens

We catch up with Jaqen H'ghar (S2) and Lord Kevan (Tywin's brother from S1), Arya's list (made in season 1), while the deaths of Lord Renly and Catelyn Stark are referenced by Lord Baelish as reasons for not trusting Brienne. There's also a fair bit of exposition by Cersei (her speech about her children, below) and Samwell Tarly in explaining what's been happening in the near past.

What I found striking in this episode was the theme of those trying to assert their authority but not really succeeding: Cersei failing with her uncle Lord Kevan, Danaerys failing to stamp her authority with her people and her children/dragons and finally, Stannis being disobeyed by Jon Snow. Although some dissent is normal, it's possible to think of this is the regal fabric of Westeros being worn down by the War of the Five Kings.

We're also introduced properly to two new locations: Braavos and Dorne. They're really quite distinct - Braavos is clearly based on medieval Venice, while Dorne is dusty southern Spain. Unfortunately, we'll now have to spread our time over even more locations, although perhaps Kings Landing will suffer now that it only contains Cersei as a major characters. Oh, and the Sand Snakes are yet to come (http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Sand_Snakes).

Note just how many road trips are happening right now - Brienne & Podrick, Jaime & Bronn, Varys & Tyrion and Arya just finished hers. Probably. As with most TV shows, particularly "fantasy" ones like The Walking Dead, the thrills come alive most when the characters are on the road, interacting with new terrain, threats, etc. The show very much tries to balance the static Castle Black and Kings Landing stuff with the dynamic "avenge my relative" / "retrieve my daughter/son" road trips.

All in all, this was an excellent episode with good visuals, link-ups with previous seasons and plot movement. The occasional inexplicable event (Danaerys's execution, Brienne's quest, etc.) makes it harder to accept the show's logic but as usual, GoT will make you feel like it's been earned, whatever "it" is. It's quite hard to pick the main storylines since we're still re-introducing characters like Arya, so instead we'll just go story by story (briefly). 

Arya / Braavos

I'm always trying to tie Arya's journey to the wider Stark v Lannister feud, but in S3, it became quite clear that Arya's narrative will take a lot of detours. Rather than reunite her with brother Robb and mother Catelyn Stark, George RR Martin had her arriving at the Freys just as the Red Wedding was happening. And so here we are, a thread that began with her Braavosi teacher Syrio Forel (www.tumblr.com/tagged/syrio-forel), continued with Jaqen H'ghar and ended with the destruction of the Stark family tree (or so Arya thought) has culminated in Arya abandoning Westeros and finding her way to the House of Black & White. 

After wandering around aimlessly, she finally meets Jaqen H'ghar, who had been there all along. Arya fans will also be pleased to know that she remembers her "list" perfectly. It's a nice way for Game of Thrones to keep season 1 alive, the way it all began. 

The surviving members of her list: Cersei, indirectly responsible as a Lannister for the deaths of Ned, Robb & Catelyn Stark. Meryn Trant, mostly for being an odious loyalist and helping a succession of Lannisters subdue and oppress Starks. Walder Frey - directly responsible for massacring the Stark party at the Red Wedding. Finally, the Mountain, for executing Ned Stark. All I can think about in these scenes is the number of names I'd like to add to the end of that list. By the way, how is it that Arya still hasn't managed to find out that Sansa is alive? Isn't it hard keeping secrets in Wetseros?

Brienne / Podrick + Lord Baelish + Sansa
[Renly's death] "You were accused."
"By men who didn't see what happened."
"So what happened"?

We finally see Brienne/Podrick meet Baelish/Sansa and my, the meeting itself is a huge anticlimax. Both storylines are currently separated from the bigger picture (temporary, I'm sure) that they're only relevant insofar as we're investing for the future. However, the Brienne/Podrick storyline has been particularly sterile, since their only quest seems to be to "rescue" Sansa, who has gone from being a hostage to master of her own destiny (to some extent).

So when Sansa refuses Brienne, it's fully understandable. What would Brienne do or take her to? They'd probably end up at the Vale again, this time with Brienne by her side. Baelish dredges up ancient history, pointing out how Brienne's lords and ladies tend to end up dead. Game of Thrones revels in bringing back seasons past - this references the Red Wedding again and Renly's murder by a spirit summoned by Melisandre (Ghost of Harrenhal, S2E05, which also featured...Jaqen H'ghar!).

What then follows is a relatively low-key action scene where Brienne saves Podrick, with an excellent kill (pic below). Almost inexplicably, Brienne vows to try again with Sansa, perhaps hoping to literally beat some sense into her. It's unfortunate because Brienne has no chips to use against Baelish, who has acted mostly in Sansa's interest (killing Joffrey, for instance). The only thing that would turn Sansa against Littlefinger is the revelation that -history lesson ahoy- Littlefinger betrayed Ned Stark WAY back in S1, with fatal consequences. But of course, Brienne & Podrick don't know that, and so on we go into a narrative black hole. Also, this:

Cersei / Kings Landing
To Jaime, about their children: "And what has your caution brought? Our eldest child murdered at his own wedding, our only daughter shipped off to Dorne...our baby boy set to marry that smirking WHORE from Highgarden!"

As usual, it's the Cersei character who brings home the narrative bacon in Kings Landing - seething with the undimmed, interminable rage that only loving parents who lose their children are capable of. On top of that, Cersei lost her father and Jaime (in an emotional sense). As I remarked last time, Cersei is completely alone and increasingly unstable. Jaime promises to bring Myrcella back to Cersei, not via war or request but a middle way - theft, you could call it.

The last time Jaime went to avenge a family member (Tyrion), it didn't go so well - he lost a hand and nearly died. Anyway, I think we all knew whom he wanted to take with him...[perhaps with Bronn by his side, he'll only lose a thumb].

Ser Bronn / Jaime Lannister
"Mean people like your sister, they always get what's come to them, one way or another."

Game of Thrones is not choosy about its laughs - sometimes it's clever and painstaking, like making the whoring, hard-drinking dwarf Tyrion the Lannisters' saviour. Sometimes it's quick, simple laughs like Ser Bronn declaring to his dim fiancee that mean people get what what they deserve, having himself abandoned the hero Tyrion in his hour of need. So Bronn gets what he deserves, being thrust back into the craw of danger with Jaime. In some ways, Bronn is a more natural foil for Jaime than Tyrion, given that they're both very flawed men, unlike Tyrion, who represents a relatively pure character.


Ilaria Sand to Prince Doran Martell, about Oberyn: "What will you do? The whole country would have you go to war!"
Doran: "Then we are lucky the whole country does not decide!"
We finally get to add another principality to our Westeros map - Dorne. As we've been told in previous episodes, Dorne was the only kingdom to retain its independence against Aegon the Conquerer and consequently is ethnically and culturally quite distinct from the rest of Westeros. Hence the "exotic" accents by British actors like Indra Verma and Alexander Siddig. It's a particular pleasure watching Varma vamp up her role as a snarling, furious Dornishwoman, even in a show with a long list of strong women (Brienne, Cersei, Melisandre, Danaerys, Olenna Tyrell).

The Dornish are a very fierce, proud, people and have lost a Prince and Princess in Elia and Oberyn, due to the Lannisters. With Danaerys continuing to be bogged down in Mereen, this Martell v Lannister conflict could be central to this season. Strangely, House Martell hasn't made a bid for Kings Landing and so this storyline isn't really related to the War of the Five Kings (GoT's central conflict), but could have a decisive impact now that Tywin is gone.

Mereen / Daario Niharis

Across the Narrow Sea, Daario Naharis and Grey Worm are on an official search for those killing the Unsullied, from episode 1. We get another odd-couple dynamic here because Naharis is an easygoing daredevil, contrasted to Grey Worm's stiff, fearless and professional attitude. And yet, as Naharis points out to Grey Worm, Grey Worm's lack of fear isn't always a strength, because he can't put himself in his quarry's shoes. Naharis somehow knows somebody is hiding in the wall in a house and smokes him out by, er, stabbing him in the leg THROUGH the wall. Turns out this guy is a Son of the Harpy and a freeman at that, possibly paid by rich slaveowning families to do their bidding.

Eventually, Danaerys has her cute little roundtable conferences, where as usual, nothing gets decided. The Council ends in a stalemate, with Ser Selmy and Hizdahr zo Loraq ground down by the raw emotion and seething rage of Mossador. Unfortunately, the scars of slavery are deep indeed, and Mossador somehow gains access to the captive and kills him. Unbelievably, a relatively professional outfit like Danaerys's allows just anybody to enter captives' cells? I'd be having a word with Ser Barristan if I were her.

"I offered you freedom and justice. One cannot exist without the other."

Earlier, Ser Barristan explains to Danaerys about her father, the "Mad King" who tried to burn the whole city down following a rebellion against his rule. [This theme has echoes of Lord Varys's statement back in S2 that Baelish would "burn this city down if he could be King of the ashes"]. It also has echoes of modern time, with forces like ISIS rampaging across the Levant razing temples, history, and other religions to the ground so they can rule over it all. 

Anyway, it's all designed to illustrate to Danaerys that she has to serve some visible justice by executing Mossador. I find this almost impossible to understand, since this is almost guaranteed to cause a public outcry; the execution of the oppressed, not the oppressors. As Mossador is executed, the crowd turns quite decisively against Danaerys and she flees inside. More alone than ever, she seeks solace with one of her children, Drogon. But alas he doesn't stick around - Danaerys got rid of the only true friend and advisor she had, Ser Jorah Mormont, in episode 8 last season. Despite Danaerys's best efforts, it looks like the people want freedom but not necessarily justice. Finally, here's a pic of the handsome beast himself:

On the road to Volantis

"She ought to offer her cunt - the best part of her for the best part of me."
Tyrion: "I managed to kill a lot of people." Varys: "Yes, but you showed great promise in other areas as well".
A delightful exchange between these two, as always. Varys continues to try to convince Tyrion that he could have been a great ruler, bringing back to memory his time as Hand of the King. As a recap, remember that Tyrion defended Kings Landing using a ferocious dosage of wildfire, until Tywin steamed in with his Lannister/Tyrell army. Tyrion also forged an alliance with House Martell, which looked like genius at the time (although now leaves Myrcella as a hostage). For some reason, Varys seems to be playing games with Tyrion - the destination seems a bit uncertain. In some ways, this is a metaphor for Tyrion's life, forever at the tip of somebody else's whims.

Cersei / Small council
"You are the Queen Mother. Nothing more."
Cersei is not a woman who revels in maximising the talent at her disposal. Having expelled the only brains in the family (Tyrion), she is stuffing the small council with sycophants and morons, rather than genuinely look to the resources available in order to run the city/country better. This isn't lost on Ser Kevan, who is yet another blast from the past (last seen in "The Pointy End", S1, when Khal Drogo, Robb Stark and Syrio Forel were all still alive)

Anyway, Ser Kevan is outraged at not being named Hand of the King and storms out. Knowing Cersei as we do, I really don't think this is going to end well for Ser Kevan. The only person I'd really like to see as Hand of the King is Olenna Tyrell, who would have a one liner at the ready any time Cersei tried to pull any weird stuff. Alas, this is probably impossible. Looking ahead, I have the feeling that we're set for an implosion at Kings Landing, given the extremely thin Council and the challenges to come from Stannis, the 'Sparrow' and whatever else.

Castle Black

Some nice little details here, like how Southerners have different words for certain things compared to the (far) Northerners. Jon Snow also makes reference later to how Northerners are a bit like wildlings and hard to control. The truth is that all people are hard to control, as Danaerys is seeing in Mereen and Kings Landing is about to see with the High Sparrow. 

Anyway, despite the small chat between Samwell, Gilly and Selyse Baratheon, this location for now is almost entirely about Jon Snow - his trials in becoming Lord Commander and responding to Stannis's various entreaties for taking the North. Jon rejects the temptations laid before him by Stannis and chooses to maintain his Nights Watch oath. 

[SIDEBAR: I'm a little unclear on how somebody un-bastards themselves: does any old person who thinks they have a claim to the throne get to make Jon Snow a "Jon Stark"?]

"Brother Slynt knows her [Gilly] quite well, they cowered together in the larder together during the Battle for the Wall...I found him there in a puddle of his own makin'..."
And so, from time to time, GoT characters just cut through the crap and deliver the goods, without any detours or unnecessary complications. Samwell Tarly comes to good use for the plot in clearly elucidating the reasons for why Jon Snow is the prime man of the house, for avenging Lord Mormont's death, for holding Castle Black once Lord Alliser was wounded and finally for going North to bargain with Mance Rayder. Jon Snow deservedly wins, although I don't begrudge Ser Alliser anything. I suspect he'll make life difficult for Jon, but Jon has won his battle against avarice, which would've been the Winterfell option. It's all a bit austere.

Anyway, that's a lot but that's it for the week. Come back next week for 'High Sparrow' where we undoubtedly meet Jonathan Pryce in a show that was more or less made for him.


Violence of thrones: several slayed Baelish minions, a crucified Son of the Harpy, and a beheaded and murderous former slave.

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