After last week’s premiere, I noticed that a lot of viewers felt as though not enough happened to incite that shock value we’ve come to expect from Game of Thrones. I was of the opinion that The Wars to Come was an episode geared mostly toward story building, and I think it’s important to remember the reason why. The Season 4 finale was perhaps the best episode of Season 4, and it was by far the best season finale for Game of Thrones, which usually experiences its season’s climatic arc in Episode 9. After the Season 4 finale we were left with a plethora of open story lines and characters on journeys to become new people. So now we must watch it come to fruition. These new character arcs have bud, but now we are watching them bloom.
Season 5 is shaping into an exploration of that very process, and it may not have the tits and ass, baby-killing, shocking death by poison, or betrayal value of previous seasons (yet)– but this story is bloody fantastic and I loved this episode. This episode focused a lot on that blurred line between what is right and wrong; the choices that are made that are not as clearly defined as those black and white doors that Arya faces.
The House of Black and White
Let’s begin this episode’s recap with Arya, because come on, who doesn’t love Arya? Her journey in the book and the show might be my favorite. Last we saw her, in the Season 4 finale she gave Westeros one last look and runs from the stern of the ship to the bow, her determined gaze locked on the path in front of her. Leaving Westeros meant leaving her name, her conquered home, her bastard brother and her sister. And still she left, because there is no more room in Arya for those bonds that once existed, they have been replaced with hate. Arya’s hate tumbles off her lips and to the god of death. Her death list prayers are not only the hate fuel that keeps her going; they are a form of ritual for some new death-oriented religion that Arya has connected to within the darkness of her identity.
I thought she would get a lot more screen time this episode considering the title, so I was a little disappointed. Arya’s arrival in Braavos introduces us to the legend of the Titan, a brief glimpse of the wharf city culture, and The House of Black and White. I love the architecture of The House of Black and White, home to the assassin guild called The Faceless Men. Arya appears so small in comparison, and my interest is definitely peaked – what is held within this massive stone structure?
Arya’s knock at the door makes her feel as small as she looks and her scramble for her Valar Morghulis coin is the action of an excited child. The man who opens the door was cloaked in white, so it will be interesting to see who is cloaked in black. The white cloaked man rejects Arya, closing the door against her pleas that she has nowhere else to go, and he refutes by telling her she has everywhere else to go. And she does. Arya has a choice. It’s not clear how long she camps out on the steps of The House of Black and White, repeating her death prayer and infusing her will into the coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar. Before she tosses the coin into the water, the shot of her approaching the edge of the water frames her perfectly between the doors of black and white. This shot alone speaks volumes about the path that Arya is walking, and lends a beautiful image to the theme of the episode. Arya releases her coin, the attachment to yet another promise that fails to come to fruition and strikes out on her own.
Next we find her in a scene that echoes one from Season 1 when she is killing pigeons in Flea Bottom in order to survive. As soon as those boys chose to interfere with her I knew that needle would soon find yet another victim. But her harassers flee at the appearance of the white cloaked man, and Arya follows him back to The House of Black and White, returning to her the coin infused with her hate, the key to her passage to Braavos, the first step on her path to becoming whoever people become when they enter that windowless structure.
The white cloaked man reveals himself to be a Faceless Man, and changes his face to that of Jaqen H’ghar. My boyfriend immediately asked me if this happened in the books, and I don’t recall her seeing his face again, but I am not surprised by the choice in the show. We are familiar with Jaqen, and we associate him with what Arya is seeking, so it seems right that his should be the face she follows. Although, it remains quite clear that identity is not associated with the face, and whatever it is that Arya is about to go through we know that identity will be the major part of her character development. She must become no one. How does someone with a revenge list become no one? Will she have to let go of her hate? So many questions.
Sansa and Littlesmirk
This is one of those storylines that is beyond what is published in the books, so this was very exciting for me. If you’re a fan of the book series then you might share my relief at Sansa’s awakening as a player in the game of thrones. Where her character is stalled in the book series has her just starting to understand that if she wants to survive, she must learn to play the game, because a dim-witted high born girl from a fallen, but still relevant House, could easily be maneuvered as a pawn. She’d certainly be a dead pawn in Cersei Lannister’s game. But Sansa Stark has made a choice to trust Littlefinger. She has embraced her own inner darkness for the sake of survival in this new world she has awakened to, and in this episode we saw the weight of that choice.
Brienne of Tarth has finally found Sansa. Well, Pod found her, but Brienne was finally able to present herself. She swears her sword to Sansa. And there it was – that glimmer of the little girl who was blind enough to believe in the kind of oath that Brienne has sworn to keep. It’s a romantic notion, but one that Littlefinger cunningly reminds us, would likely end in Sansa’s death. Everyone Brienne has sworn to protect has died. But Sansa has already made her calculation, and knows her best possible outcome for survival comes with the continued tutelage of Petyr freaking Baelish. And what a mentor he is; Sansa is learning him along with his tactics.
The two share a brief exchange about ale when Sansa seeks to explore what all the fuss is about. Littlefinger tells her that ale gives men courage. And Sansa asks whether it gave Littlfiger courage. His smirk can be read two ways: that of a mentor impressed with his protégé, and that of a man intrigued with the mind of this young woman he is shaping. If she learns what makes him tick and she becomes his equal in the art of manipulation, then she can use him to her advantage.
Sansa rejects Brienne, and in that moment when she says “no,” she gives Brienne a look that mirrored the cold hard look that Arya gave her when she, too, rejected Brienne’s sword. Sansa is different now. She is colder and more calculating. I love the development of her character.
Brienne and Podrick barely escape with their lives, and Brienne must decide what she will do next. Podrick points out that she has been rejected by both the Stark girls and could thus be released from her oath. Brienne’s honor rivals that of Ned Stark (and Jon Snow, but I’ll get to that in a minute), and she chooses to follow Sansa and Littlefinger. Brienne is clinging to her sense of honor, her purpose, and she thinks that ultimately Sansa will need protection from Littlefinger, and so she chooses her oath.
Whoa, Jon Snow
Holy shit, Jon Snow, your story line is blowing up right now! Remember in Season Two when Jon just walked around in the snow with Ygritte and nothing happened? Well, all of the things are happening now.
First, King Stannis calls Jon Snow in to scold him for showing mercy and breaking the King’s law by shooting Mance Rayder. This interestingly parallels Dany’s problems in this episode, and it ties into the theme of navigating the line between what is right and what is wrong, and what is the true meaning of justice? Stannis gives a lesson in ruling that Dany is also struggling to learn; that if you show too much kindness then the people won’t fear you, and if people don’t fear you then they won’t follow you. I appreciate the way these storylines are paralleling one another. They inform each other, allowing us to apply the lessons learned in some story lines to what is happening elsewhere.
Then Stannis offers Jon a pretty sweet deal. Stannis cannot win the North without a Stark. As Jon points out, Northerners are not that different from the Wildlings, they are stubborn and loyal to their own. Stannis offers Jon the title of Stark if he bows and pledges his fealty to him. Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell. It’s been his dream his entire life. But, he was raised by Ned Stark and he is bound to The Night’s Watch by oath. Stannis wants to use Jon any way he can, whether it be with the Wildling cause, or to gain the North’s support for his claim to the Iron Throne. But he will not have him as a Stark.
As Jon is only barely beginning to wrap his mind around what was just offered, and what he just turned down, the vote for The Night’s Watch 998th Lord Commander is underway. Ser Alliser Thorne seems a shoe-in for the job, and cowardly Janos Slynt is happy to endorse him. Bowen Marsh is also thrown into the running. And then, just as the voting is about to begin – Samwell Tarly speaks up. He calls Janos Slynt out for being the coward that he is, and nominates Jon for Lord Commander citing his leadership during the attack on The Wall and killing off the rebel brothers at Craster’s Keep. Sam knows that if Thorne wins as Lord Commander he will hang Jon as a traitor, and he knows that if there is any peace to be kept with Stannis at The Wall as well as the mass of Wildlings, then Jon is the only man who can do it. Plus, he’s his BFF.
The votes are cast. There’s a tie. And because The Wall is not Florida, the votes do not have to be recounted. The final vote is cast by Maester Aemon, in front of all and in favor of Jon Snow. The rally cry resounds, but Jon Snow may have more enemies than friends at The Wall, and he certainly has his work cut out for him. I felt like all of this action at The Wall moved rather quickly, that Jon didn’t quite get the opportunity to reflect and experience the weight of all that happened to him.
The Mess in Meereen
“Someone who has forgotten fear has forgotten how to hide.” Daario tells this to Grey Worm as they are on the hunt for the Sons of the Harpy. I quote him here because his words apply to what happens to Dany in this week’s episode. Once they have the man as a prisoner, Dany’s small council is at odds with each other on what to do with him. I think Dany was able to see that the disorder among her advisors was more indicative of the weakening power of her hold on Meereen. The whole time I watched it I thought about how badly she needs the sound advice of Ser Jorah, or Tyrion Lannister.
At least Ser Selmy was able to give her some advice through his observations of her father’s faults in ruling. He details to Daenarys the misguided notions that her father bore regarding the idea of justice. He was mad, he burned men alive and laughed, he burned his enemies, and when the people rose against him he burned their homes and lands. Selmy tells Dany that the Mad King gave the justice he thought the people deserved, and it made him feel right and powerful until the very end. This is the struggle Dany is facing in Meereen. Does she implement her sense of justice, siding with the slaves at every turn because of how wrong she knows slavery to be? Or does she acknowledge things are not so black and white? Not all of the Masters are the evil men she has made them out to be in her mind, and she needs to toe this line carefully in a city on the verge of civil war and revolt.
Her hand is forced. Her orders to hold the Sons of the Harpy member until he has a fair trial are disobeyed by Mossador and he is killed and crucified in public. Mossador is an emancipated slave with a very subjective perspective. What he’s done has placed Daenarys in a very bad position. She must punish him. Like Ned Stark had to behead the Night’s Watch man who abandoned his post in the first episode, she cannot have her law broken by a member of her own council. Like Stannis said, if you are too kind then your people don’t fear you. But her choice to make the whole thing a public display was just dumb.
She has the love of the people, they call her mother, they adore her for emancipating them, and yet there she is about to cast a death sentence on one of their own. This is where Daario’s earlier quote seems to apply – Daenarys does not fear the people. She has shown that over and over; just think back to the Season 3 finale and that closing shot. She is the breaker of chains, she is Mysha. But someone who has forgotten fear has forgotten how to hide, and carrying out her law so publicly is a bad show for someone who relies on the love of the people. Those people don’t understand the message she is trying to send to both the Masters and the slaves – all they saw was a beheading of one of their own, carried out by a sellsword, for the crime of breaking a law rooted in a justice they understand.
What Dany struggles with is line between blood justice and the justice of the law. Blood justice is the only justice Dany understands, her House words, her Dothraki rule, her conquering – but she chose not to carry out the blood justice due to politics she does not quite understand. That resulted in Mossador’s choice to carry out the blood justice he knew she really wanted, the kind of justice he knew to be right. And for that, she has to punish him, because even though he did what she really wanted to do – he broke her law. The moment the people turned on her was chilling. A hiss moved through the crowd; the people became one, and Daenerys knows instantly that she did everything wrong. Chaos erupts and the slaves start attacking the Masters while Dany is rushed away under protection, a scene paralleling the attack on the Royal Party in King’s Landing in Season 2.
And then, as though sensing the threat to his Mother, Drogon appears outside Dany’s balcony. Is their bond formed in such a way that he knows when she is in danger or needs protection? Whatever the reason, Drogon is alive and he is still on Dany’s side.
Cersei’s Wrath, the Jaime and Bronn show, and Dorne
I don’t think I hate anyone as much as Cersei Lannister, and Lena Headey makes it really easy. Cersei beckons the Kingslayer when she receives a package from Dorne; the contents of which deliver a threat. The Martells hate the Lannisters for things that happened back when Robert became King and the Mountain raped and killed Elia Martell, Rhaegar Targaryen’s wife and Oberyn and Doran’s sister. Now the Mountain has killed Oberyn (a scene that has forever scarred me). Well, Myrcella, Cersei and Jaime’s daughter is just hanging out in the water gardens of Dorne, completely at their mercy, and the Martell’s send a message to remind the Lannister’s of that fact. Cersei lashes out at Jaime; she spits venom in the face of the only person who still loves her. Did anyone catch that threat to “burn their cities to the ground?” She’s not a Targaryen, and yet she assumes the fiery breath of one, and perhaps this is also meant to parallel her mindset to that of the Mad King Aerys.
Despite all Cersei’s meanness, Jaime gropes at the opportunity to do a good thing, save his daughter, a daughter he’s never been able to claim. He’s a knight that needs a mission, and so instead of having him do diplomatic work in the North like in the books, we have him on the road to Dorne to save his daughter. I like this deviation from the books much better, and again, like I mentioned last week – it keeps our main characters in play and contains the sprawling world created by GRRM.
Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s lover, wants revenge for Oberyn’s death by killing Myrcella slowly and sending parts of her back to her mother. Come on now, who are you – Ramsay Bolton? Doran Martell isn’t going to allow it, but all of Oberyn’s bastard daughters, the Sand Snakes, are coiled and ready to strike. Doran Martell is weakened by sickness, physically, but not in the mind. However, his honor seems to make him vulnerable to those who want to avenge Oberyn, even though by law his death was not murder. (How about all the snakes weaving in and out of this episode? I think they were in every story line: Gilly’s alphabet letter, Cersei’s threat, Dorne, that creepy hissing in Meereen, and well, Littlefinger.)
So, Jaime is about to walk into a pit of snakes, and Bronn is about to marry some dimwit who isn’t actually heir to that awesome castle we saw. Bronn is back. I’m happy about this for multiple reasons: 1) Even though he didn’t help Tyrion, he did like him and we all kinda understood that relationship. 2) He’s comic relief. 3) He and Jaime have rapport. Bronn helped Jaime learn to fight with his left hand and never told anyone about it. Jaime trusts Bronn, and Bronn trusts money. At least their journey will be entertaining.
Varys and Tyrion are on the road to Volantis where some kind of connection will take them to Meereen. Tyrion is in yet another box, seemingly forever locked in a box with his ghosts and guilt. We find out that Cersei has offered a sweet reward for the head of her brother, and so a worldwide man hunt for dwarves is underway. The two bicker like a proper couple, and Varys spins more riddles about the significance of boxes and the difference between the likes of he and Tyrion versus the people they serve.
Uncle Kevan, My Hero
There goes Cersei – off acting like the Queen, when really, all she’s only the King’s mother. She walks into that small council meeting and sits in her father’s chair. She speaks for the King. And the only one who thinks to question this is her Uncle Kevan. Cersei promotes the witless Lord Mace Tyrell, adds Qyburn to the council as the Master of Whispers, and gives her Uncle no substantial position of power by naming him the Master of War. Ser Kevan Lannister is the only one who stands up to Cersei and questions her authority, her assumed position, and refuses her orders. He may seem to be walking away with a target on his back, but he just delivered to Cersei a dose of reality that I feel will continue to come her way. She is no longer protected under the claim as Tywin Lannister’s daughter, nor is she the Queen. Her position is tenuous.
Overall, I thought this episode was good and there was a lot of movement. Jon Snow’s story is really moving forward, but I didn’t think they gave Kit Harrington enough time to wrestle with some of the temptation and choices that were thrust at him. I was also disappointed with the lack of screen time with Arya, but I am at least glad she gained entrance to The House of Black and White. Overall, the episode was well written and the storylines were all connected thematically and with the snake imagery popping up everywhere. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Amanda Lowery lives, writes and studies in Baltimore where she is held hostage by potholes, stray cats and rats that make her watch way too much TV and rhyme unnecessarily. You can find her book reviews and pop culture thoughts at amandasthinkingoutloud.blogspot.com.