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The following review discusses Game of Thrones, “The House of Black and White,” in detail:
“Cersei. Walder Frey. The Mountain. Meryn Trant…”
Arya Stark’s long list is getting shorter. (So long, Joffrey! Hasta la Vista, Tywin! See you in the Seven Hells, Hound?) But it is only a partial one, the opening bars to a long, long tune of vengeance awaited in Westeros. You want payback? Get in line, behind the slaves of Meereen, the Martells of Dorne, pretty much anyone who ever crossed a Lannister (especially other Lannisters). Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in Westeros, it is a multicourse banquet.
Vengeance is a big theme in “The House of Black and White,” an ironic title since the moral question here is anything but. Westeros’ history, like most any other continent’s, is a chain of they-did-it-to-us-first stretching back to the mists of creation. Hardly a character on screen lacks just cause for revenge on someone. But while the quest may be thrilling, it’s never simple. Vengeance is sweet. But is it just? Is it right? Is it smart?
The episode starts its investigation with Arya, whom we’d follow to the ends of the Earth–and now we have, almost anyway, on a ship sailing underneath the dangly bits of the Titan of Braavos. Our first sight is her fixed, intent stare. Her anger and bitterness have honed her sharper than Needle, and she’s come in hopes of weaponizing herself, clutching her worried coin, seeking J’aqen Haghar. She’s rowed in, past the homey scenes of a beautiful harbor, hanging melons, frying fish, but the only tourist site she’s interested in is the massive building built entirely of cold rock and Manichean symbolism.
Her plan may be drawn from the Underpants Gnome school of retribution. (“1. House of Black and White. 2. ??? 3. Vengeance!”) But this is all she has left: a coin, a badass fighting stance and the name of a guy. Because there’s no good sensei story without a challenge, she’s met be a strange elderly man who turns her away. Later, he reveals himself as the face-shifting J’aqen, though he denies that name. He’s no one–he has many faces, but no identity–and if she enters the building that’s who she will have to become too.
Message: when you make a list of names for revenge, save a line at the bottom for your own.
If that’s some kind of cautionary parable, though, no one’s listening. Certainly not Cersei, who has issued a bounty that is reaping her dwarfheads by the bagful from opportunistic bounty hunters. Not Brienne, driven across the countryside by duty and unquenched fury of Renly’s murder. Not Stannis, of the inflexible code of justice, who tells Jon Snow that if you want to be followed, you need to be feared.
And it’s not long before we’re in our first new location, Dorne, which is beautiful and angry. Someone has FedExed Cersei a gorgeous hexagonal box with a snake–symbol of Dorne–and the necklace of her daughter Myrcella, living as a ward/hostage in the land whose prince, Oberyn, her champion the Mountain recently made into head-jelly.
It’s a threat, but not a certain one: back at the Water Gardens, Ellaria Sand is arguing with Prince Doran whether to punish Myrcella–an eye for Oberyn’s literal eyes. “We do not mutilate little girls for vengeance,” he answers. “Not here. Not while I rule.”
From the looks of things, the argument is not over. But he has powerful recent history on his side. The reason Oberyn came to King’s Landing at all, and accepted the battle with the Mountain so gladly, was vengeance for his own sister, brutally raped and murdered in the sack of King’s Landing. Does it do anyone any good to launch another round, paying it forward to another innocent and ensuring yet another reprisal, when the view of the gardens is so lovely?
It may be a moral question–turn the other cheek and all that–but because Game of Thrones is very much a political story too, it’s also a practical one. On the one hand, maybe you can reign more peacefully and prosperously if you’re willing to risk weakness and break the cycle. On the other hand, how do you do that without rewarding the very worst?
These are the irreconcilable questions facing Dany, in a conquered Meereen where everyone is keeping a list. The Sons of the Harpy are waging urban guerilla warfare in payback for the slave rebellion, and former slaves are paying back the payback. Ser Barristan counsels her that her father, the Mad King, acted out of a sense of cruel, deserved justice and it was his downfall. Her Meereen aides argue that the slave masters–the same ones who crucified children on the road–only understand cruelty. (Complicating everything is that the Harpy murderers aren’t the slavemasters themselves, but poor freedmen paid to do their dirty work. Vengeance, as so often in real life, really means taking the low-hanging fruit.)
They’re all right, and thus all wrong. And when Daenerys tries to balance the scales by using due process, that goes wrong too: the prisoner is murderered in custody, which finally pushes Dany to lose the moral high ground–and at least some of her subjects’ affection–by having him summarily executed.
So justice has been done. Payment has been exacted. The scales have been balanced. And everybody is better off–not least Dany, who alienated her “children” in Meereen, and ends the episode looking out on the landscape as her dragon-child Drogon flies off over the dusky horizon.
It’s as if she’s looking into the future, one in which all debts are paid, all grievances settled, a land where justice is so thorough and complete that there’s no one left to live in it.
Now for the hail of arrows:
* “But you forgot about…!” There’s a hell of a lot of story in Game of Thrones, and as in my reviews of past seasons, I can think of nothing more useless than trying to mention every last thing that happened in every episode. Each week, I’ll write about the stuff that interests me most. Feel free to take it from there in the comments!
* We got a whopping new diversion from the source books this week, which I’ll spoiler-blur for those of you who don’t want to know how things go down in the original:
Brienne finds Sansa! I didn’t have this one in my Game of Thrones betting pool, but not only does it make for the action sequence of the week–as Brienne is slyly rebuffed by Littlefinger, then goes berserker on his knights in her getaway–it also solves a couple of narrative problems from A Feast for Crows. First, we no longer need follow Brienne trudging, and trudging, and trudging, through the countryside before finally getting strung up by the (no longer on the scene) Lady Stoneheart. Second, we had just about exhausted the existing from-the-books Littlefinger and Sansa story by this point. Like other changes, this one is driven by efficiency: don’t keep people sidelined, don’t introduce new characters where existing ones will do. The result may be better or worse, but the storyline is riding fast into unknown woods, and I like it.
* So how cornball are the House of Black and White sequences? We’re treading perilously close to Yoda/Miyagi territory with the mystic Eastern music and a-girl-must-become-nothing-isms. (And though I’m being that guy, it’s a shame that when a show that’s created a very white Westeros casts an older black man, his face is literally wiped after two scenes.) On the other hand, I loved how Thrones physically represented J’aqen’s transformation, with the camera passing behind Arya’s head just in time to catch the barest glimpse of a skin being pulled to the side of J’aqen’s cowl. And who am I kidding? I’m a sucker for cornball sensei-learner sequences; there’s a good reason we see them so often.
* “We’ve already got a ruler. Everywhere has got a ruler. Every pile of shit by the side of every road has someone’s banner hanging from it.” I will happily take a full hour of the Varys and Drunk Tyrion show every week.
* I suppose I should mention that Jon got himself elected Lord Commander (albeit turned down becoming Lord of Winterfell), which I assume means that he just bought a bigger load of problems. Still the election was satisfying, if nothing else for Sam sending Janos Slynt straight to the burn unit for cowering in the larder during the battle with the Wildlings. And in scenes like this–the divided cliques, Maester Aemon slyly casting the deciding vote–The Wall reminds me of a really dark version of Hogwarts.
* “Jaime fookin’ Lannister!” Ah, I fookin’ missed you too, Bronn.